Russia will succeed in Syria if it wants to be exceptional not equal
Russia will succeed in Syria if it wants to be exceptional not equal – what an Op Ed and a speech by two presidents tell us about the Syrian predicament
Besides a few platitudes on International Law, the OpEd president Putin has penned in the NYT has parts that are interesting and parts that are truly scary. In responding to the speech made by the US president in Congress, he claimed equal treatment for Russia and denounced the US president’s claim to American exceptionalism. There is a deeply flawed logic there that influences the Syrian predicament.
Let’s start with the good part. President Putin makes a few convincing statements. Yes one should always prefer diplomacy to force. Yes, the use of force in Syria may create more problems than solve. Yes there are recent blatant examples of just how wrong the use of force can go. And yes, international cooperation, particularly between permanent members of the SC is a good tool to solve breaches of peace and threats to regional and global security. When it works!
President Putin is also right to be worried that the UN may become as irrelevant as the League of Nations. He is also right (though he does not mention this in the OpEd) to think that the League of Nations was made so by the lack of real interest of the world’s great powers in using it as a tool to prevent war. While the League of Nations was made irrelevant by not using its (weak) peace preserving instruments, the UN risks being made irrelevant by blockage. It constantly suffered from partisan driven paralysis during the Cold War too. Ultimately, during all those years, it worked (as a place to settle conflict and de-escalate risks to global peace and security) because the game was taking place under MAD rules of engagement.
Today none of the classical great powers is contemplating gowning to war against the others. They still plan for this but in a halfhearted way. But the competition remains fierce if terribly unequal. Also the competition is less existential that during the Cold War and hence countries holding opposing views in the UN SC have less to lose if they play a blocking game.
Russia itself broke international law several times and it was repeatedly in breach of UN Charter provisions. This includes massive and disproportionate use of military forces against its own citizens as well those of at least one other country. When it comes to the UN, it was Russia that blocked repeatedly UN SC resolutions on Syria. Not just a resolution to open the way for use of force but resolutions with enough teeth to impact the Assad regime. At the time the issue was more about finding a way to first avoid the continuous bloodshed and second avoid a spiral that would destabilize the entire region. Because of UN SC blockage we are way past that point. And indeed there are few viable solutions, military or diplomatic. The scenario we contemplate is Lebanon’s civil war but on a much larger scale and with more terrible ideological elements. But the question is not about use of force designed to stop the civil war in Syria. It is probably much too late for that or too early however fraught with moral traps this statement may be. The question regards the use of force to insure the Assad regime, or anybody else in Syria or the region for that matter, will not today or ever contemplate that it can use weapons of mass destruction with impunity. This is important for the region and the world’s security. In fact this may be critically important for Russia too.
While confounding the issue of who used chemical weapons on a large scale in Syria president Putin makes a very dangerous and cynical calculation. While the UN report will probably point a finger to the Assad government it will lack the clear cut absolute evidence the Russia claims is needed to assert it was the “government side”. And here lies the biggest part of the problem. Russia and its diplomats and soldiers now the risks of not acting on a use of WMDs. The problem is that the Putin administration cares very little about that. Neither it cares about the civilian suffering in Syria. In fact, and despite what the NYT piece says, it is Russia that offers support (and today some claim to legitimacy) to the Assad regime that is guilty of massacring civilian population on a large scale. In this respect I do not see how Russia can be seen as the constructive party president Putin claims it is.
Now that may change. It is true that Russia’s credibility as an honest broker is low but I believe the world (and the US) is ready to concede that it can play a major role. That by the way would be the only added value for Russia’s proximity to the inner circle of the Assad regime.
Aside Russian calculation regarding regional balance of power, access to lucrative weapons deals, control of Syrian coast in the proximity of Israeli and Cypriot gas fields etc. its role there may prove to be much more of a nightmare that president Putin has bargained for. Stepping in as a successful broker will get Russia major points in terms of international clout and credibility.
Any negotiated peace in Syria would be better than external military involvement. Also a credible, non-military solution for the chemical weapons issue would also highly desirable. This is unfortunately highly unlikely. The problem is that rouge regimes like Assad’s Syria, North Korea and to some extent Iran use diplomatic process as an escape for making any real concession. This in part because any real concession is a weakness they cannot afford. And they get away with it despite of what that does to their own citizens and the world’s security. This in part would not be so without Russian support. This is the catch 22 for Russia. The problem is that the same problem is faced by the US, the region and the international community too.
Now I get to what I meant in the beginning of this peace when I said the president’s OpEd is also scary. To believe what the OpEd piece claims is beyond cynicism and more in the realm of delusion. It does take a certain amount of arrogance to claming equality, because this is how God wishes! As an agnostic that knows a few things about religion I can confidently say that it is individuals that are equal and not countries and certainly not regimes.
Russia has yet to prove that it can be considered equal (to any power) in terms of its contributions to peace and security. In fact, one can argue that in many ways Russia is like any other big power in the opposite (when it comes to peace and security). Russia too can ignore interests and rights of others equally well as other powers when it suites it. Yes it did fight and defeated Nazism and it paid a horrible price. Yes its innumerable heroes both on the battlefield and civilians deserve Europe’s eternal gratitude. But let’s not forget that it was also Russia that for many decades enslaved in the name of Soviet Union peoples across Europe. Also let’s not forget that it was Russia that invented and managed the Gulag and exported successfully this type of terror across the vast swaths of the continent it controlled. To claim legal or political equality between nations is one, to claim equality in the sense that all nations are exceptional in their contribution to peace, security and liberty at home and abroad may be quite a different thing. And Putin’s Russia is unfortunately not in a position to legitimately claim so.
The US does have its many mistakes in international affairs that include heavy handedness, abuse of use of force and even war crimes. At the same time, it is clear that such comparisons serve little purpose and are bound to be subjectively interpretable. Let’s be clear, in the speech quoted by president Putin, the US president was referring to a civic call to exceptionalism enshrined in the US legal and political history. A history of defending democracy and liberty by the US at home and abroad. This exceptionalism also contributed to Russia’s people own effort to combat Nazism and ultimately defeat Communism. The fact that some on both sides thought that defeating Communism means defeating Russia remains a problem for both sides. The fact also remains that Barrack Obama has started as a civic activist serving disenfranchised communities in Chicago and Vladimir Putin as a KGB officer serving the Soviet regime. They may both have the well being of their nation at heart but indeed their choice of instruments is strikingly different. The very exceptionalism president Obama was referring to made it in fact possible for a black man named Hussein that had a Muslim step-father to be elected in free and fair elections as the POTUS after September 11. That made it possible for a US president (one that actually has the legal and military means to actually strike Syria) to act with utmost restraint, despite the many voices in his own and its competitor’s camp that blame him for it. Meanwhile in Russia today is one of the worst times to be a member of a political, sexual orientation, ethnic or religious minority. When not legally sanctioned or perpetrated by the authorities these abuses are condoned by them. And in Syria president Putin is the only friend (except Hezbollah and Iran) that the Assad regime can claim.
President Putin was referring to the equality between powers that allows for no exceptionalism in the sense that all are equal in their pursuit of self-interest. That is a deeply twisted understating of the concept as used by the US president. And that is in fact exactly why the exceptionalism president Obama mentioned in his speech is relevant. What American exceptionalism is can be twisted in many ways. Like for example how anti-Semites twist Jewish exceptionalism when they refer to the “chosen people” concept as arrogance instead as a (religious) burden-creating legacy. The American exceptionalism is something for Americans to live with and by. It refers to their own choices rather than to how the world shall treat or see the US. One can accept or not that this exceptionalism stems from classical enlightenment and the republican and democratic values it informed. One may accept or not that those values have helped the US be a leading force in preserving the free world in both world wars, the cold war and ever since. This is between the Americans ant their political conscience and not between them and the world. For Vladimir Putin this is irrelevant. He does not grasp or does not care that this is an inner exceptionalism that may make some Americans proud but it does not in any way reduces Russia’s or any other nation’s claim to equality. It is also the type of voluntary blindness that does not allow Kremlin to se Russia’s own domestic plight.
Both the US and Russia have systematically acted in self interest and addressed international issues exclusively through a great power’s set of preferences and scenarios. But the very nature of the regimes in these two great powers underlines the exceptionality of one and not the other. They may be both popularly elected but we all know that elections are not the only conditions of democracy. By the way, free and fair elections not just polls. It is this essential quality of liberal democracies that is central here. Yes the US may quite often act like a great power and not like a great liberal democracy. That is the price of being a great power and it is mostly paid by the receiving side. This means usually but not always by citizens of other nations. The US exceptionalism does not serve as excuse for these wrong decisions or policies but as a long term and permanent correction instrument available to its leadership, political elites and public.
Both Russia and the US are now attempting to do what is both in their own national interest and just. It will be very hard to establish a universally acceptable moral position when judging the outcome of bloody conflicts that threaten entire regions and potentially the world. President Obama’s temporization of US use of force is creating for Russia the option to choose the role it wants to play in Syria. The two powers are today terribly unequal in terms of the actual power they poses in terms of military and economic capabilities. One is essentially a great spoiler the other a great potential breaker of things (to quote the excellent article by Rosa Brooks). If Russia will successfully contribute to a negotiated solution to Syria it will be not because it wants to be equal but because it wants to be exceptional!