Russia's nimble footwork on Syria

  • 11 September 2013
  • From the section Europe
Media captionAlexei Pushkov: We were on the brink of a big regional war

Vladimir Putin is often accused of sticking spanners in the works of international diplomacy.

But if Russia's initiative on Syria is successful, it would be a huge diplomatic coup for the Kremlin leader.

Averting a US military strike on a key ally in the Middle East, while removing the threat from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons: that would already be seen as a stunning success for Moscow.

According to several Russian newspapers this morning, it would also allow US President Barack Obama to "save face", by removing the need for a military action most Americans are uneasy with.

On the issue of Syria, Russia seems to have kept one step ahead of the United States.

While President Obama has been accused of U-turns and zigzags, of drawing red lines and being slow to act on them, President Putin has been as solid and unshakeable as the Kremlin walls: consistently opposed to a US strike.

The Kremlin's not for turning. What's more, Russia believes that its message has been getting through and that its tough stance has helped dilute international support for US military action.

Last week, the UN, the EU and the Vatican all expressed their support for a political solution.

Even if the Russian initiative eventually unravels amid bickering and paralysis in the Security Council, Moscow can still argue that at least it tried to find a peaceful solution.

Devil in the detail

But what are the chances of it succeeding?

It will not be easy. The Russians may have come up with a proposal. They may even have persuaded Damascus to agree to it. But, as yet, there is no concrete plan. Not yet, anyway.

Russia has yet to provide details of how it sees the disarmament process working in Syria, in the middle of a civil war: how would stockpiles be verified, where would they be held, what would be the time frame?

At their talks in Geneva on Thursday, the US Secretary of State John Kerry will expect the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to provide vital detail.

The potential sticking point is over the threat of force.

President Putin says Moscow's initiative can only work if the United States and its allies rule out military action against Damascus. But President Obama has made it clear he believes it is only the threat of force which has made a diplomatic solution possible.

In the UN Security Council it is hard to imagine the US, France and UK agreeing to a non-binding resolution that would not threaten President Assad with serious consequences if he fails to comply with the plan.

Even if a compromise is reached and a diplomatic solution found, this will not bring an end to the fighting.

According to this morning's edition of the Russian daily, Vedomosti, Moscow's proposal "concerns only chemical weapons and Obama's red line. But not the whole Syrian conflict, which will continue."