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Russia is Buying Something…


My latest at the Diplomat:

Such support still has its costs. Russia now effectively owns Syrian chemical weapons, even if it never actually takes custody of them, as any further attacks will seriously embarrass Moscow. It’s fair to acknowledge, of course, that embarrassing Russia can be difficult, and that any use of CW by the Assad regime will be blamed on the rebels. Even in this context, however, we can expect that the regime will take steps to limit the extent of the attacks to the degree that claims of rebel responsibility are at least faintly plausible.

This deal binds Assad’s fate to Russian policy. For the moment this may seem like a win for Russia, which can “lean in” in order to prevent the collapse of its client. As with all patron-client relationships in the international system, however, the Russian decision to take ownership of Syrian chemical weapons policy may prove less savvy in the medium and long run than in the short.

To expand a bit, my general thought is this; concerns about serious verification efforts are beside the point, because Russia is essentially putting its good word behind the declaration that the Syrian government will not use chemical weapons again during this conflict.  It’s possible that Russia really, really doesn’t care about the international embarrassment that would ensue following repeated additional attacks, but my guess is that Putin, Lavrov, and company will be deeply irritable if the Assad regime is uncooperative on this point. Russia surely defines prestige in different terms than the United States, but I very much doubt that it wants to be shown up by a client state.

In short, I would be happy if Kerry said “Verification?  Unnecessary.  We’ll take the good word of President Putin as verification enough that the Assad regime will no longer use chemical weapons.” Even if there’s another attack, the U.S. isn’t in any worse position that it is now, and Russia has a bigger problem.

See also here.



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