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A case of careful choreography?

Arab NewsThere is a suspicious elegance to the way in which the Syrian diplomatic dance between Moscow and Washington has been unfolding this week. Indeed many will be wondering very seriously, if the whole affair has not been carefully choreographed.

Remember, President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama are by all accounts these days, at odds over virtually everything. Their body language at last week's G20 gathering in Russia, might not have demonstrated the same disaffection as the last time they met, at the UK G20 summit in June. Nevertheless, by all accounts, they were still the best of "not-friends", as Obama argued the case for military intervention in Syria and Putin stonewalled on behalf of his faithful ally in Damascus.

And yet within days of their parting, still apparently on very poor terms, Putin seems to have thrown his US opposite number a political lifeline. The Russian suggestion that Syria place its entire stockpile of chemical weapons under international control, in return for a halt to a US attack on the regime, was described by political pundits as an unexpected intervention. Yet the deftness with which Obama caught that lifeline and proceeded to use it, could suggest to some, that he knew perfectly well that it was coming.

For the two and a half years that Bashar Assad has been seeking to bludgeon his own people into resubmitting to his dictatorial will, the case for foreign intervention on behalf of the rebels has grown ever stronger. More than 100,000 people have died and in excess of two million refugees have been created, in a conflict marked by the savagery of Syrian government troops and their attendant Shabbiha militiamen. Yet Obama has resisted even calls to arm the insurgents, let alone intervene militarily.

To ease the pressure building against America's refusal to engage, Obama warned that if chemical weapons were used, Washington would take military action. He already knew that Assad's soldiers had used chemical agents earlier in the attempt to suppress the rebellion. However, he must have hoped that his new threat would give him clear ground on which to base his refusal to engage in the conflict.

And yet, days later, almost certainly on orders from Assad or someone close to him, chemical shells are fired into a Damascus suburb, murdering 1,400 people, many of them women and children. To all intents and purposes it appeared that Obama's bluff had been called and that he was committed to taking early military action, which he could have done straight away using his executive powers.

But if this really is a diplomatic ballet, then the choreography from here on in is worth examining. Predictably Putin leaps onto the stage warning that no such attack can take place. The corps de ballet clomps out of the wings in the shape of France's Francois Hollande and the UK's David Cameron, vowing to support Obama through thick and thin. Then Cameron decides to check his plans with the British Parliament, which vetoes them, remembering how Tony Blair conned it into attacking Iraq. Then Obama decides to do the self-same thing and it quickly becomes apparent that he might not get the desired nod of approval from Capitol Hill. Humiliation seems days away.

But lo! The prancing Putin stops wagging his finger but offers instead that life line, a way for Obama to escape his dilemma. Call off the military attack and he will persuade Assad to put his chemical weapons under international control. The Syrian leader needs no persuading. Of course he will submit to this condition. Suddenly, not just Obama but everyone is off the hook -- except the long-suffering people of Syria and the Free Syrian Army.

The idea that international observers should be able to enter a war zone and guard arsenals of chemical weapons is fanciful in the extreme. And would Assad risk advertising the location of this deadly weaponry? Would he not fear that the rebels might seek to seize them and use them on his own people? And besides, organizing an international monitoring force and moving it into position in the midst of conflict, is going to take, not weeks, but months -- if indeed such a mission ever actually sees the light of day.

But this is doubtless as well understood by Obama as it is by Putin and Assad. What has actually been achieved is that Washington no longer has to take military action, Moscow no longer needs to threaten dire consequences if it does, and Assad has been left free to continue the savage repression of his people, but no longer with poison gas.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Sep 13, 2013
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