Syria And The Russian Reset Fail: How Putin Turned The Tables On Obama

The Syrian crisis will dominate the G20 summit in St Petersburg. While the U.S. readies a lonely military strike, Russia's President presents himself as protector of international law.

Syria And The Russian Reset Fail: How Putin Turned The Tables On Obama
Luis Lema

GENEVA – When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton famously called for Washington and Moscow to "hit the reset button." And from the Russian perspective, mission accomplished.

Vladimir Putin will certainly struggle to hide his satisfaction when he welcomes the G20 leaders under the splendor of Saint Petersburg, city of Czars.

"After a 15-year eclipse, he has put Russia back at the center of the international stage," says Philippe Migault, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "It's a resounding personal victory. Vladimir Putin is sitting pretty right now."

What a turnaround indeed. Just over four years ago, when the Obama administration held its hand out to Russia, the young American president seemed to be holding the world in his hands. Nothing could stop him, not even the old Russian enemies, apparently seduced (like everybody else) by the new tone, the pragmatism and the respect of differences shown by the new master of the world's most powerful country.

Obama's approach has not changed, but it seems to have reached the end of its logic. Meanwhile, the position he refused to occupy on Syria has been filled by others. The "red lines" he clumsily drew did nothing but limit his own course of action, rather than that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It's a power thing

While Obama had presented himself as the fierce champion of international law, he now finds himself in an unusual role: virtually alone in defending a strike on Syria almost certainly to wind up outside the bounds of international law. What's more, the American missiles that are now ready to be fired might not have any influence on the outcome of a war in which the United States has, so far, refused to enter. The military stakes have been relegated to second place, giving way to those of a simple, public assertion of power.

But Obama's host can also play this game. Seen from Moscow, through Vladimir Putin's eyes, the evolution has been different. A year ago, according to reports from the New York Times, the former prime minister since recently reelected president met with U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilan, and said as soon as they started talking: "When are you going to start bombing Syria?"

Assad has always been an inconvenient ally for Moscow, but the alliance has held through thick and thin. Forget about Russia's almost insignificant Tartus naval base inside Syria or the arms contracts that Damascus can barely fulfill. What matters is something else, more subtle but more important for Russia: a renewed prominence in geopolitics, the chance to make Saint Petersburg shine.

Libyan precedence

From the beginning, the Russians watched with suspicion as unrest shook the Arab world. They expressed outrage at the Americans manipulating and encouraging these uprisings, and then stepping in to depose the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

As the conflict intensified in Syria, it became a textbook case. The Moscow leader's words had been crystal clear. According to the same New York Times, he had told the Americans: "There will never be another Libya."

Even if the Syrian war has killed 100,000 people? In Chechnya, Russia proved that it "understood" this way of doing things. "Syria is only 1,000 kilometers 620 miles away from the Caucasus. If from there the region should face major instability, it would spread to Central Asia," Philippe Migault observes. "Yet, Russia has experienced attacks from Islamists that were just as traumatic as 9/11 was for the US. Insecurity is still fierce in Ingushetia, Dagestan or Chechnya. These are not excuses but a real interest in security, which is a priority for them."

In order to try to embarrass their opponent, the West will probably use the G20 to brandish their documentation proving that Assad's regime did in fact use chemical weapons in the August 21 attack. But because Russia is sure to stick with its stance, and quibble indefinitely, Moscow has all the time in the world: it is waiting for the result of the investigation of the United Nations, the only organization that has international legitimacy.

Virtually no country lifted a finger to support "punitive" strikes, refusing to bow to the pressure from public opinion, horrified by this chemical attack. It is Putin's Russia indeed that now plays the role of protector of the world order. It is to Russia that the others shall have to ask for a "reset" and a return to diplomatic reason.

As this week's meetings begins, everybody will be counting their supporters. In Washington, the big names in the Republican party, aware of what is at stake, have chosen the right moment to offer their rare support to Barack Obama. Opposite him, rallying to the cause are all the national forces in Russia, including the powerful Orthodox Church (protector of the sacred Christian sites in Syria) and Farid Salman's Islamic Council of Russian Muftis. In unison, they insist as Moscow's diplomats have done already: "It was the opposition who used chemical weapons."

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