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Did Vladimir Putin Bait a Trap for the United States in Damascus?

Why the Russian president has every reason to cross Barack Obama’s “red line” on Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East

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U.S. President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, delivers a statement on Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Aug. 31, 2013. (Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
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The nerve-gas attack that left an estimated 1,000 or more dead civilians foaming at the mouth last month in Damascus constitutes a national security risk that the United States cannot afford to ignore, President Barack Obama argued in his televised remarks on Saturday, because it “risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” A more precise description of the attack in Damascus was that it made a mockery of Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons—a line that Obama appears to have laid down precisely because he believed that it would never be crossed, thus providing America with a bullet-proof excuse for staying out of Syria’s bloody civil war.

So, who in their right mind would aim to force Obama into a conflict he obviously wants to avoid? Syria has little military or political interest in being bombed by the United States—especially now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clearly winning the war for primacy in Syria. In the context of the regime’s recent military gains, a chemical weapons attack on a civilian neighborhood in the middle of Damascus served no strategic purpose even remotely commensurate with the risk it entailed. The same goes for Syria’s regional allies: Hezbollah has little interest in their Syrian ally appearing to be even more of a monster, and Iran’s chief interest would appear to lie in encouraging the rest of the world to forget about WMD threats until they actually acquire a nuclear bomb.

Who actually benefited from breaching Obama’s “red line”? A compelling answer can be found in the nature of the attack itself. A Sarin gas attack like the one in Damascus requires days of preparation so that the chemical agents can be mixed and loaded into specialized delivery systems by trained handlers and troops in the region can be issued gas masks and other protective clothing. Orders must travel through a defined chain of command—allowing them to be intercepted, as they apparently were by Israeli intelligence, which put them in American hands before the attack was even launched. In other words, a nerve-gas attack is not the kind of atrocity that a local commander can order up on a whim to please his goons or terrify the locals into obedience. Except in the most extreme instances of Col. Kurtz-like madness or institutional disintegration, orders to use such weapons necessarily come from the top.

Clearly, suggesting that anyone aside from Assad gave the final order to launch a massive chemical weapons attack in the center of his own capital is tantamount to suggesting that Assad is no longer in charge of his regime—a suggestion for which there is no evidence. But the chain of military command inside Syria doesn’t end with the country’s president. The idea that Assad gave the order to carry out such a massive and politically dangerous attack without the approval of his Russian and Iranian advisers is also absurd—given the regime’s near-total reliance on Russian and Iranian strategic planning, supplies, fighters, and diplomatic backing for its week-to-week survival. Ditto for the idea that Russian or Iranian officers inside Syria gave their approval for such an attack without the blessing of the men at the top of their own chains of command: Ali Khamenei in Iran, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

So, who—Khamenei or Putin—gave the OK? A reading of public statements by Iranian leaders suggests that they were at the least discomfited by the Syrian government’s actions, if not blind-sided by them. Both current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Iranian President Rafsanjani condemned the attack, with Rafsanjani openly naming the Syrian government as the perpetrator. Rouhani, for his part, called on “the international community to use all its might to prevent the use of these weapons anywhere in the world, especially in Syria”—which hardly seem like the words of a man whose immediate boss just OKed the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Which leaves the more influential and powerful authority figure in the room by nearly every conceivable measure, including disposable wealth, diplomatic throw-weight, and advanced weapons systems: Vladimir Putin.

The most illuminating way of understanding why Putin would greenlight a nerve-gas attack that would cross America’s “red lines” in Syria is therefore to ask how the Russian president understands U.S. policy toward the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—a policy whose real focus is not Syria but Iran.

***

Among students of the rougher techniques used by fascists, communists, and other old-fashioned political actors whose names rarely appear on ballots in contemporary Western democracies, the nerve-gas attack in Damascus is what’s known as a provocation. In the aesthetics of power that Putin learned from his instructors in the KGB, and that they learned from both their Leninist teachers and the Nazi enemy in WWII, a good provocation is a thing of beauty—a sinister and mind-bending event designed to elicit a response that will serve as a pretext for a predetermined course of action directed toward a larger strategic goal.

One of the classic aims of provocation as a technique is to alter the context in which future action takes place; the aggressor looks like he is defending himself, while the injured party looks like the aggressor. One major aim of this reversal is to disorient and demoralize the victim as well as anyone who is watching, a situation that often leads to paralysis, which further augments the aggressor’s tactical advantage. Some classic examples of provocation include the burning of the Reichstag, which was provoked by the Gestapo and led to Hitler’s formal seizure of power in Germany, or attacks on ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland that were staged or provoked by Nazi agents and then used as pretexts for the Nazi invasions of those countries. A more recent example of the technique can arguably be found in the 1999 bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow by Chechen terrorists—attacks that may have been sanctioned by the FSB for the purpose of bringing Putin to power.

And while Hezbollah is silent and the Iranians condemn their ally’s actions, Putin appears to be enjoying himself at his victim’s expense. Calling claims of a Syrian nerve-gas strike “utter nonsense,” Putin told the Ria Novosti news agency last week that he had not seen even the slightest proof that the Syrian government was behind any use of chemical weapons, ever—or that chemical weapons had been used at all. “If they say that the governmental forces used weapons of mass destruction … and that they have proof of it, let them present it to the U.N. inspectors and the Security Council,” Putin opined, adding, “Claims that the proof exists but is classified and cannot be presented to anybody are below criticism.” Putin also seemed to delight in personally tweaking Obama—addressing him not as President of the United States but as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and urging him to embrace nonviolence.

If what happened in Damascus was a provocation, authored by Putin and intended to display American weakness to the world—the next question then becomes, why? Or, to put a finer point on things, what purpose, apart from the obvious pleasure of making Obama look like a sissy, was worth the risk of being held responsible—even partially responsible—for killing more than 1,000 people with weapons whose names are bywords for horror and whose use is a heinous crime under international law.

A worthy prize is not hard to find. While Obama was making his calculations about staying out of Syria—calculations that appear in retrospect to have been both reasonable and false—Putin was making his own calculations about the power vacuum that Obama had left behind in the Middle East. His first conclusion from studying that vacuum appears to have been that Obama wasn’t serious about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb—since that would mean involvement in another shooting war in the region. His second conclusion was that the best way to make that conclusion obvious was by crossing Obama’s “red line” in Syria—in response to which the U.S. president would probably do nothing, or next to nothing. What made the “red line” a perfect target for a provocation was that the line was never serious; it was a fig-leaf for excusing American inaction in a bloody civil war while keeping alive the president’s stated commitment to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

It is also worth noting that the nerve-gas attack in Syria is simply the latest and biggest in a series of incidents in which Putin has chosen to publicly confront the United States and stick his finger in Obama’s eye. First, Putin chose to give NSA leaker Edward Snowden refuge in Moscow’s airport and then in Moscow itself—a decision that led Obama to cancel his planned summit meeting with the Russian president, which presumably was a consequence that Putin both predicted and welcomed. Second, Putin decided to criminalize homosexuality at the Sochi Olympics—a thumb in the eye to an American government that prided itself on its acceptance of gay marriage. The U.S. press treated each of these incidents as indications that Putin is a difficult, ornery person—when in retrospect, they appear to be part of an ongoing global campaign to put Moscow on one side and Washington on the other. Applying the wedge tactics in the global arena that were so successful in Putin’s use of the Pussy Riot incident at home was an interesting novelty, it seemed, but nothing more. What was missing was any sense of why Putin would suddenly find it to Russia’s advantage to stoke conflict with Washington.

Evidence for why Putin might have gambled on America backing down is again easy to find. Obama made it plain that his only real interest in the Middle East was to get American troops out of the region as fast as possible. His famous Cairo speech, which so excited global commentators, pro and con, was a rhetorical signal that America was taking a new direction after eight years of war. The direction Obama clearly favored was “out”—out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan, out of the business of backing Hosni Mubarak and other regional dictators, out of attempts to overthrow or destabilize the regime in Iran, out of any real effort to create a Palestinian state or force Israel to leave the West Bank.

For Washington policymakers on both sides of the aisle, Obama’s new direction for Mideast policy made plenty of sense. The American economy was weakened by a decade of wars, the American people were tired, and the Pentagon was broke. Attempts at using limited force in Libya had created a mess that made even reasonable people long for the days of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Egypt, where Obama hoped for an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, slid into economic chaos and hopeless misrule. On the plus side, what was left of al-Qaida seemed more or less under control—and there was also the surprising news that, thanks to improved technology for extracting oil from shale deposits, America was on track to become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017. So, why bother with the Middle East?

The president’s Syria policy was therefore an entirely coherent example of his larger approach to the region: Let Assad’s forces and the Sunni jihadists stomp on each other’s corpses and then YouTube it, while America provided airplane meals to a limited number of people who professed their belief in some form of democratic, nonsectarian government. The appointment of Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was icing on the policy cake, ensuring that the Pulitzer Prize-winner would be too busy explaining Syria policy to her fellow delegates and Ivy League grads to write a book denouncing Obama as an accomplice to genocide. It was perfect set-up, until Putin ruined it all with a nasty poison gas attack on Obama’s face-saving “red line.”

The prize Putin is seeking for obliterating the American “red line” is not victory in Syria—since his client Assad is clearly winning anyway. The point of the attack is to publically expose Obama’s deep ambivalence about the use of force to stop Iran. If Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria can fall so easily, after the public deaths of more than 1,000 innocent people, including hundreds of children who died foaming at the mouth, how many cruise missiles might Iran’s putative acquisition of nuclear weapons capacity cost? Two hundred? One hundred? Zero? The answer now is plain: However many missiles they might fire, America has no stomach for fighting a war in Syria, let alone in Iran.

***

Putin needs to make America look weak because Russia is weak. The major source of Russian weakness is Vladimir Putin—or rather, the system that Putin has imposed on Russia so that he can continue in his dual capacity as the country’s elected leader and also its richest man. When he decided to run for president again in 2012, Putin was faced with a fateful choice: He could work to make Russia an attractive destination for foreign capital by strengthening the rule of law and loosening the grip of the oligarchs, or he could choose to strengthen his own rule, according to the methods that were most familiar to him. Putin’s decision to use fraudulent means to win the presidential election, and then to clamp down hard on subsequent criticism, closing down newspapers and throwing critics in jail, made perfect sense to a man bred in an authoritarian state. It also ensured that the Russian economy would continue to be run through Putin and the oligarchs—the backbone of his political support—in ways that were unlikely to encourage rational foreign investment. The decay of the Russian economy under Putin means that foreign policy is not a moral exercise—rather, it is the only means by which Russia’s current economic leverage can be sustained.

By showing that Obama’s America is unable and unwilling to keep its promises, Putin has widened the leadership void in the Middle East—as a prelude to filling it himself. By helping to clear Iran’s path to a bomb, Putin positions himself as Iran’s most powerful ally—while paradoxically gaining greater leverage with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, who would much rather negotiate with Russia than with Iran, their sworn enemy. While the Americans were heading out of the Middle East, and the Chinese were too busy with their own internal debates about the future of their economy and society, Putin saw that something valuable had been abandoned on the world stage, and he took it. For the price of 1,000 dead civilians in Damascus, he has gained great power status in the oil-rich Middle East. Iran, for its part, gets the bomb, which isn’t great news for anyone, but was probably going to happen anyway.

If Putin baited a trap for the United States in Damascus, it was Obama who walked right into it.

The first lesson here for American policymakers is that Putin may or may not be evil, but he is obviously much smarter than they are—and he knows it. Another lesson worth learning is that American belief in promoting ostensibly universal aims like promoting democracy or halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through the limited and well-meaning use of military force is only sensible in a world of people who share American values and preferences.

Since no such world exists, at least right now, and probably ever, Americans might be better off crediting the notion that while we are thinking our thoughts, other people are thinking their own thoughts, which are shaped by very different experiences and aesthetics—and that are likely to shape a world that we no longer control, in part because we have decided that telling people in faraway places what to do is the ultimate sin. In that belief, as in many others, Obama—and not his critics on the left and on the right—accurately reflects the will of the American people, who have experienced the endless wars of the last 50 years as a pointless waste of lives and treasure whose only clear outcomes appear to be piles of corpses abroad and the diminishment of basic liberties at home.

Only time will tell whose evil is worse—Putin’s or Obama’s. While Putin delights in using the old-school KGB playbook to consolidate his one-man rule, and to expose the empty moral posturing of the West, Obama believes that he can talk his way into a workable accommodation between his own sense of morality and global reality. But the lesson of Obama’s fig leaf is that it is better to be honest about what we are doing in the world and why. If Putin baited a trap for the United States in Damascus, it was Obama who walked right into it. If Obama had stood up and declared that the United States had no vital interest in Syria but would stop Iran from getting nukes—and would prosecute the authors of the nerve-gas attack at The Hague—then Putin would have been trapped. The same would have been true if Obama had said nothing and blown up two or three of Assad’s palaces. But he did neither. Sometimes, well-meaning lies and political spin can be just as deadly, in the end, as nerve gas.

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Did Vladimir Putin Bait a Trap for the United States in Damascus?

Why the Russian president has every reason to cross Barack Obama’s “red line” on Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East