Obama and Putin: Co-Dependent on Syria

by Mark N. Katz

The international relations of the Syrian conflict has taken center stage in recent days. President Obama first announced that he would launch a military strike against Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its internal opponents in August, but he also said that he would seek Congressional approval for doing so. And just last week, when it was becoming increasingly clear that Obama was unlikely to obtain Congressional approval, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced a dramatic initiative to place Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles under international control — which, despite much skepticism from its conservative opponents, the Obama administration quickly accepted. Progress on this initiative appears to be going forward.

What all this goes to show is that while Washington and Moscow have sharply differing approaches to the conflict in Syria — especially when it comes to whether Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad should remain in power — Obama and Putin also have some common interests there.

Neither Moscow nor Washington wants to see the further use of chemical weapons in Syria or elsewhere. At the same time, Putin does not want to see America use force against Syrian ally. And although Obama has threatened to use force against Assad, he doesn’t really want to have to do so. If he did, he would have gone ahead and done so without seeking prior approval from Congress.

Further, despite their differences over whether Assad should remain in power, neither Obama nor Putin wants to see his regime replaced by a radical Sunni one, which both Washington and Moscow have come to fear as being the most likely outcome to the violent downfall of Assad.

Obama’s desire not to get the U.S. too deeply involved in Syria also coincides with Putin’s desire not to see Russia lose influence there.  Washington’s agreement to Moscow’s initiative on Syrian chemical weapons, then, gives each leader hope of achieving his goals.

For Putin, Obama’s acceptance of the Lavrov initiative on Syrian chemical weapons is the kind of Russian-American cooperation in resolving the world’s conflicts that Moscow had hoped would occur after the end of the Cold War but which the U.S. has rarely seen the need for.

Obama and Putin, then, have several common interests when it comes to Syria. Despite this, however, it is not clear that Russian-American cooperation on the Syrian chemical weapons issue will be sufficient to resolve it. Although he has verbally agreed to it, Assad might well not fully comply with this effort. Yet even if the Syrian chemical weapons issue is successfully resolved, this will not end the Syrian civil war nor motivate regional actors supporting different sides to stop doing so.

All this gives Obama and Putin an additional common interest in working together to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons problem:  their failure to do so will demonstrate the powerlessness of both leaders — something neither can afford.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com



  1. What this means is that the ultimate question and conflict between the U.S. and Russia as to who shall rule Syria and what its borders will be shall be deferred. So far, notwithstanding our jihadist/mercenary imports into Syria estimated at 100,000 (contrary to Mr. Kerry’s smoke and mirrors claim of just a few), the Syrian people have been overwhelmingly behind Assad, at least if you believe the facts on the ground and our own CIA’s estimates. Thus, the U.S. has put itself in the position of supporting an anti-democracy anti-human rights agenda in Syria to control or influence Syria’s real estate, resources access routes and neighbors (e.g., Iran) for its own purposes as well as those of Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It’s a losing proposition when the so-called human rights advocates
    in the Administration are so blind as to miss the contradiction in their policies and actions, or have- as it is more reasonable to infer- sold out to the special interests.

    Unfortunately, Obama doesn’t want to let go of Syria or Iran, so what we may have to endure is more
    diplomatic thrusting and parrying without any substantive results, though at least that would mean avoiding a conflagration. If, however, Obama had really wanted to see a democratic solution to the Syrian crisis, he could have avoided starting the war after the initial demonstrations in Daraa and the Government’s constitutional reform proposals, and let the constitutional process run its course up to 2014 and the the next Syrian Presidential election. Instead, he (and Rice, Clinton, Panetta, Feltman and Robert Ford) opted for a clandestine COIN operation to provoke and sustain a civil war. Moreover, the President and his Administration have done their utmost to obstruct the peace process when they could have pulled the plug on its jihadist/mercenaries, and leaned on its proxy allies to do the same. So, I would take issue with Mr. Katz’s point that Obama doesn’t want to get too deeply involved- Obama already is and has been for over two years.

    Instead, the American people have had to hear, and have become tired of, hot air, prevarications and fabrications, and it is something Lavrov and Putin have recognized better than our own Administration, Congress or mainstream media.

  2. My apologies for my error in the estimate of the number of jihadists and mercenaries in Syria.

    Instead, according to the Daily Telegraph a new IHS Jane’s study, out of an estimated 100,000 fighters, 40,000- 45,000 are believed to be jihadists or hardline Islamists. The Daily Telegraph also reported that the Janes study states that “[t]he insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.”
    (See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10311007/Syria-nearly-half-rebel-fighters-are-jihadists-or-hardline-Islamists-says-IHS-Janes-report.html
    The IHS Janes study is expected to be published later this week.

    The basic conclusion of jihadist influence still holds. With the US (e.g. CIA) continuing to arm and supply the jihadists and Islamists, Kerry’s use of the jihadist numbers to minimize the jihadist problem seems to have been an intentional misrepresentation to disarm public opposition in the U.S.

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