MARTIN SCHRAM: Syria's big picture, as Putin sees it
It would have made great sense if President Barack Obama had pulled an Edward Snowden and leaked to Russia’s Vladimir Putin the best bits of U.S. intelligence about Syria’s Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack, which hideously murdered hundreds of innocent men, women and children as they slept in their beds in the suburbs of Damascus.
Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll learn Team Obama did just that. The White House seemed shocked when Putin performed a gold-medal-worthy, 180-degree diplomatic power reversal and raced to accept the halfhearted musing of a weary Secretary of State, John Kerry, that Syria should just surrender its chemical weapons of mass destruction.
No wonder Putin strong-armed his pal, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, into agreeing to surrender them. Even that the United Nations should begin destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal — immediately. Yes, Putin and Assad were agreeing to surrender and destroy the same chemical weapons they simultaneously were denying that Syria had just used against its own people.
But when we see Syria’s big picture through the eyes of Russia’s worried president, his proposal makes sense. It even gives us reason to think this may be one promise Putin may force Assad to keep. Even though we watchfully and skeptically must verify each step.
Here’s the view of Syria from Putin’s head.
Putin has long feared the prospect of Islamist jihadists in Russia’s restive regions of Chechnya and the Caucasus spreading terror elsewhere in Russia. Putin knows Chechen and Caucasus Islamists are now fighting for Syrian rebels. And Putin fears that if the rebels take power, they may send chemical weapons to Muslim allies inside Russia. No wonder Putin wants Assad to stay in power and in control of his chemical arsenal.
Now this: U.S. intelligence reportedly intercepted conversations just hours after the Aug. 21 attack on the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta showing great confusion within Syria’s Ministry of Defense. In an Aug. 27 scoop in The Cable, a respected blog on ForeignPol icy.com, Noah Shachtman reported that “an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services.”
Back then, U.S. officials were using that intelligence coup to prove that Assad’s regime launched the attack and that Assad’s claim of a rebel attack was simply false. But now, officials should consider another possibility: that Assad may not have personally controlled his entire arsenal and that one or more rogue military officers may have launched the attack.
Of course, that doesn’t help the United States build an airtight political case that Assad is personally culpable for having ordered the Aug. 21 attack. But that’s just small-think.
Now, shift into global big-think and view the same intelligence from Putin’s perspective. He’d probably find this reported U.S. intelligence troubling. Because, if Assad doesn’t control all his chemical weapons, someone with access may ship some of them to Islamist terrorists in Russia.
If that was the view from inside Putin’s head, it no longer seems so shocking that Russia’s president leaped to make the American secretary of state’s wishful thinking come true.
On Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria hosted two national-security-policy icons — and sometimes rivals — and found Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski performing in unison. “Putin, in my opinion, considers radical Islam his biggest security threat,” said Kissinger. “He saw an opportunity to perhaps get into step with us by easing an immediate American difficulty, but solving a common problem.”
“We don’t have the same interests, but we have, in some cases, compatible interests,” said Brzezinski. “So, I think there is some computability, tactically, maybe even strategically, between us and the Russians at this stage.”
For Russia and the United States, tragedies such as the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis and last April’s Boston Marathon bombing have made homeland security a rare common denominator. Even among old adversaries, this denominator no longer divides.