Putin's Syria Strategy Makes Obama Look Like an Amateur

Following the announcement by the Syrian government on Monday night that they have accepted a Russian proposal that they hand over their entire chemical weapons stocks to international control; momentum towards a U.S.-led military strike may be dwindling. Though next to no details of the plan have been revealed, and despite suspicions that it is just a delaying tactic, spokesmen representing both the American and French governments have been forced to accept that it needs to be carefully considered.

The proposals are a virtuoso move by Russia's leader Vladimir Putin. In one carefully timed stroke he has aligned Russia with the UN, taken the initiative in responding to last month's chemical weapons attack, and maybe even averted a military strike against his Syrian allies. With a mere five years of foreign policy experience, President Obama could learn a thing or two from the man who was mastering his trade in the KGB before the Berlin Wall came down.

While Obama has struggled to respond coherently to the war in Syria – caught between humanitarian outrage and cold sweats at the prospect of becoming embroiled in "another Iraq" – Putin has been nothing if not consistent in his approach: he has pursued Russia's national interest unwaveringly.

On numerous occasions in the past two years Western politicians have confidently predicted that Assad's regime was "doomed" and accused Russia of sticking its head in the sand for refusing to abandon their old allies. However, the successes Assad's regime has enjoyed in recent months suggest that Russia's analysis of the ground-truth in Syria may actually have been more clear-sighted than that commonly presented in the Western media.

Russia calculated early on in the conflict that Syria was vital to their Middle East policy that they were willing to expend diplomatic capital to retain influence in Syria, and that to retain influence Assad must remain in power. Putin clearly calculated that, even if he abandoned the Assad regime, any new rebel-backed government would view Russia with suspicion due to the many years of support it had provided the Assad family. In contrast, if Assad was victorious he would be in Russia's debt and heavily dependent on them for international support – assuring Russia of the influence it sought.

Russia has played its hand cautiously, avoiding pinning itself ideologically to Assad or providing his regime with overt support. Instead, it has used its veto on the UN Security Council to prevent any momentum building for concerted action against Assad by the international community. Russia's rhetoric has emphasized non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state (to align itself with China's default position) and concern regarding radical Islamists within the rebel movement, in an attempt to stir concern in the West that the overthrow of Assad could create a haven for Al Qaeda.

In contrast, Obama has seemed uncertain of what his Syrian policy aims to achieve. Early in the conflict the administration appeared set on ignoring Syria, wary of becoming involved in any form in another Middle Eastern conflict just as he was beginning to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan. Then in August 2012 the president infamously described the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a "red line." However, a number of attacks appear to have occurred without any significant response from the president, before the August 21, 2013 attack in East Damascus shocked the world and convinced Obama that a limited "punishment" military strike was needed to preserve his reputation.

In some ways, the U.S. administration may be pleased if this provides an opportunity to call-off the march towards military force given domestic opposition and tepid support internationally. However, another change of direction would reinforce the impression that the administration is stuck on the back-foot. Meanwhile, it is the Russians who have the initiative. Whether or not he can ultimately avert a military strike, Putin will be satisfied at having again wrong-footed his international opponents. And if a strike is prevented it will certainly improve the prospects that Assad’s regime will survive to repay the Russians for their support.