Vladimir Putin may have won big on Syria

Keith Wagstaff
Putin's not completely in the clear.

Before this week, it looked like Russia would be watching from the sidelines as the United States tried to rally international support for a strike against Syria.

Then came Secretary of State John Kerry's seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion that Assad "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week" to avoid an attack — a proposal Russia and Syria unexpectedly jumped on, setting off a chain of events that has put a strike on hold and left President Obama scrambling for a response.

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Putin's bold move has so far paid off, making him look like a decisive leader who stepped in and stopped an unnecessary war.

"Putin and [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad have totally won this round," Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a foreign policy expert at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, tells Bloomberg. He claims that Putin's plan is to "push off the talk of strikes for as long as possible because the longer he pushes them off, the less likely they are."

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Instead of appearing irrelevant, Putin has kept his ally Syria alive for another day. And Syria is home, coincidentally enough, to Russia's only military base outside the former Soviet Union. If the plan works, Putin then "becomes a necessary player in Middle East politics," Michael Corgan, a professor of international relations at Boston University, tells USA Today, "which is something he wants, to enhance Russia's place in determining world affairs."

Not only that, he has flipped the power dynamic with the United States, argues The Weekly Standard's Lee Smith, coming out on top after Obama's much-publicized "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations at the beginning of his term:

Reset with Russia was originally a strategic priority for the Obama administration because it saw Moscow as the key to getting Iran to come to the negotiating table. Putin, from the White House’s perspective, was destined for the role of junior partner. Now Putin has turned "reset" upside down. By helping Obama out of a jam with Syria, Putin has made himself the senior partner to whom the White House is now beholden. [The Weekly Standard]

Putin also gets to enjoy the view from the moral high ground, after years of obstructing an international response to a conflict that has killed 100,000 people. Now that the issue is likely going back to the United Nations, Putin can "claim to be upholding the U.N. system and international law in the teeth of reckless American unilateralism," writes Simon Tisdall at The Guardian.

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And while looking like a "global peacemaker," writes Bill Keller at The New York Times, Putin has "assured continued Syrian demand for Russian-made 'conventional' ordnance, so that the extermination of Syrian civilians can proceed by marginally less inhumane means."

The only downside for Putin? This entire deal could fall apart.

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Russia has already complicated matters by demanding that the United States "renounce the use of force" before negotiations begin, something the White House isn't likely to do. Russia is also arguing with France over whether the International Criminal Court will have jurisdiction to punish those responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people.

Slate's Fred Kaplan says Putin is "wriggling in a trap of his own making," claiming that if "Russia backs away from a real deal, after exciting so many players to its possibilities, Obama could emerge with his airstrikes gaining greater support — at home and abroad."

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