Playing the Russian Card

By Dr Russell Bentley, Politics & International Relations

The UK House of Commons vote on 29 August delivered a bloody nose to Prime Minister David Cameron, but it gave a fairly solid punch to President Obama as well. It has never been clear that Obama wants to intervene in the Syrian crisis at all – and there always seemed to be a good deal of hopefulness that talk of ‘red lines’ would do the trick of deterring Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Why anyone would think that a vague ultimatum might deter a leader like Assad is one of the deeper mysteries of the president’s foreign policy tactics. Be that as it may, the Commons vote causes enormous complications for the United States, now that the president has talked himself into the corner of having to take practical, military steps to respond to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on 21 August. While France’s President Hollande has stated that he supports military intervention in principle, there simply is no Western alliance confronting Assad, let alone a united international community.

The United States cannot now act with any clear mandate. There is no hope of a Security Council resolution calling for military intervention and the fragmentation of the North Atlantic alliance on this point (UK out, Germany out, France possibly in) means that Obama cannot even pitch any intervention as a fulfilment of treaty obligations. That certainly does not mean that the US will not launch some very limited attack on Syrian government targets, but it is certain that such a move would be ineffective as a deterrent against any future chemical weapons use by the Assad regime. Is there any hope for diplomacy? I would suggest that there is, but it cannot take the form of trying to affect the Syrian regime directly and, instead, centres on the regime’s enablers. Russia, most directly, serves as the Syrian regime’s greatest protector in international bodies and, along with China, has stopped dead any Security Council progress on the Syrian conflict. A vigorous and robust diplomatic offensive that makes Russia the clear culprit and, as I said, enabler of a regime that uses chemical weapons against its own people (and, indeed, supplies weapons to that regime) is an important way of dealing with the awful calamity in Syria. This may be the only realistic option left open to Cameron’s government and the somewhat hobbled Obama administration. The world needs to see what support for the Syrian regime not only enables, but causes. The assurance of Russian support can only leave the Syrian regime confident that no concerted response will be forthcoming from the international community and confident that any military action is ineffective to the point of being trivial. This is a regime that is prepared to dust itself off after a ‘punishment’ attack and go right out and commit the same atrocities again. Therefore, the diplomatic focus has to be on the scandalous and inexcusable support of the Russians for the Assad regime. This isn’t support in the form of prudent opposition to military intervention. This is significant material support and it is now clearly the basic condition that enabled a humanitarian crisis which the world will soon regret and history will judge harshly.

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