King's students on why things are getting Syri-ous


This is one of a two-part series of op-eds on Syria by King's students for Professor Glader's Persuasive Writing & Speaking class.

When a dictatorial ex-KGB spook promises to ensure that his friend (another unscrupulous tyrant) is playing by the rules, it sounds a bit like the fox guarding the chicken-coop. After all, Putin’s Russia is not known for playing by international rules, as the wanton invasion of Georgia and vindictive use of cyber-warfare against Estonia demonstrate. But for the United States, Vladimir Putin’s deal with Syria is a blessing in disguise.

Public support in the United States for a missile strike on Syria is abysmally low and the numbers keep dwindling. According to HuffPost/YouGov polls, only 12% of Americans support a strike (down from 25% three weeks ago), while 61% oppose any military action. Even those who support a strike are inclined to wait-and-see whether Assad relinquishes his chemical arsenal.

Russia’s offer is timely. For President Obama, Putin’s bargain provides an escape route from the dilemma of unpopular military strikes on one hand and humiliating empty threats about a “red line” on the other. From the American perspective, a diplomatic proposal is worth accepting, even though it means ceding political power to Russia and acknowledging that Putin, not Obama, is the world leader in negotiating an end to the Syria crisis.

Russia commands incredible leverage over the precarious Assad regime. Russian arms and ammunition keep the Syrian army in the field, while the Russian veto in the Security Council fends off United Nations approval of a military option. To buy time, Russia is still trying to convince the United Nations that rebel forces used sarin gas, not the Syrian army. Russia would be a dangerous ally to spurn. Putin's demand is an offer Assad can’t refuse. Within hours of the Russian offer, Syrian Secretary of State Walid Muallem eagerly indicated the regime’s willingness to cooperate.

Nevertheless, the public is not inclined to trust Syria’s follow-through. Another HuffPost/YouGov poll found that only 40% of respondents thought it “likely” or even “somewhat likely” that Syria would hand over its chemical weapons. As long as America continues to threaten military action, however, there is no downside to compliance for Assad. In giving up its chemical arsenal, Syria deepens its relationship with Russia, averts the threat of an American strike, and reaps the political capital of adopting the Chemical Weapons Convention. Outside interference in the Syrian Civil War appears less likely once chemical weapons are erased from the equation.

President Ronald Reagan loved the Russian proverb, “trust, but verify,” and he used it liberally in his disarmament negotiations with Gorbachev. President Obama ought to apply the slogan to Putin’s promises. To execute the diplomatic plan, United Nations inspectors must be unobstructed by Syrian officials. An armed truce would best ensure the investigators’ safety and guarantee comprehensive examination, though this requires the consent of the Syrian rebels. Once the United States is convinced that both Syria and Russia have upheld the bargain, it can back down from its hawkish perch.

The United States cannot turn a blind eye to gross abuses of human rights which break international norms. Neither can we ignore the possibility that the volatile conflict may allow deadly weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of extremists, who would not hesitate to use them against American or Israeli populations. But no justification for military action is urgent enough to enlist the war-weary American people for another tour of duty in the Middle East. Putin’s deal is a welcome, though unlikely tool in protecting American interests. President Obama ought to remember, however, that the hungry Soviet Bear is not inspired by altruism.