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September 17, 2013 8:00 AM What to Make of Putin’s Op-Ed

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Two quick notes on two interested parties in the rolling Syria situation.

First, what to make of Russia’s intentions? I’ve been deeply skeptical, for the obvious reason that Russia is Russia, a weak country whose foreign policy revolves around sticking it to the U.S. The op-ed in the New York Times yesterday by Russian President and future “Crossfire” co-host Vladimir Putin is a case in point. In the op-ed, Putin went out of his way to agitate just about every American to the right of Noam Chomsky.

So obviously I think Russia’s play — in which it has forestalled an American strike on Syria by promising to help relieve the regime of its chemical weapons — is to delay, disrupt and confuse. For many reasons, several of them technical, it seems outlandish to believe that even a well-intentioned Russia could organize an effort to place several hundred tons of chemical weapons under international control in a war zone.

But there’s a chance — just a chance — that Putin is actually sincere in pursuing the goal of disarmament. Not because he’s a good fellow, but because disarming Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad staves off humiliation for him. Syria, you’ll recall, was in the Soviet sphere of influence when Putin was a wee KGB agent. To this day, Syria is a client state of the Soviet Union’s successor. It would be terribly humiliating for a man of Putin’s pretensions to watch a client state be attacked by the U.S. In particular, it would be humiliating — and this is important — because Putin would have no response other than to place further op-eds in American newspapers. Putin would look impotent in the aftermath of an unanswered strike. And because Russia isn’t going to war with the U.S. to defend Syria, the best he can do is remove the impetus for a strike.

Also, if he did sincerely pursue disarmament, he could win the Nobel Peace Prize, which would be an almost unspeakable humiliation for the U.S., not to mention all the people Putin has oppressed over the years.

Second, Israel: Many people are speculating that the weakness and indecisiveness President Barack Obama has shown on Syria (somewhat of a caricature to my mind — after all, we’re only having a debate about chemical weapons because Obama threatened to attack) indicates that he’s not someone Israel can rely on to keep his promises. His main promise to Israel was to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

I understand this argument, even though, as I’ve argued, the “red line” Obama drew on Syria is not analogous to the one he drew on Iran, because the president has always been clear that Iran represents a top-tier national security threat to him, while Syria doesn’t. If you’re sitting in the Middle East, however — in the Jewish state, or in one of the several Arab states that also feel threatened by Iran — you might not be interested in such nuance.

For what’s it worth, I don’t see an Israeli strike on Iran as likelier now than, say, two months ago. The first reason: The Syria drama isn’t over. It may end in an American strike, for all we know. (I hope not.) The second reason: Israel is still a client state of the U.S. It relies on Obama for weapons, aid and diplomatic cover. The U.S. fights for Israel on the uneven battlefield of the United Nations. In short, Israel still must listen to an American president when an American president demands something. And at various points over the past three years, as Israel has come close to preparing a strike on Iran, Obama has demanded that it back down. Each time, Israel has complied. I don’t see how this power relationship changes, barring a full-scale withdrawal of the U.S. from the Middle East.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View, and a senior editor at The Atlantic.
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