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.