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Opinion: The Return of the Russians | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov listens to Libyan Foreign Minister Muhammad Abdelaziz, not pictured, in Moscow on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Call it whatever you want: “The Russian initiative,” or “An American slip of the tongue.” Whatever you call it, this led to Bashar Al-Assad agreeing to give up his chemical weapons in order to avoid a military strike. However the reality is that what we are facing is nothing more than American, and international, weakness in the region; the Russians have taught the Americans—and particularly President Obama—an unforgettable lesson throughout the Syrian crisis.

Yesterday, it seemed that we would finally find out the West’s, and specifically America’s, position regarding its regional and security interests, and this is indeed what happened. Russia played the “diplomacy” card and embroiled President Obama—who is in this fix due to his own hesitancy—in a difficult position. The Russians therefore opened a new front allowing Assad to avoid the prospects of a military strike, granting him more time to continue committing crimes. All this required of Assad was for him to announce that he agrees to hand over his chemical weapons, or place them under international supervision. This is a new trick, similar to the one he played on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon charged with investigating the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. In this case, Assad announced his agreement, only to delay and back out later, with the tribunal ultimately being buried under other international concerns.

Today, the Russians have sold the Americans an illusion, akin to selling them a gas-field only nobody knows the true value of the gas, how to extract it, or how long this will take. The Russians were clever, and Obama had no choice but to respond quickly in order to save face, particularly after he shot himself in the foot by calling for a congressional vote on a possible Syria strike. Today, it is clear that the Syrian crisis had returned to square one politically, particularly as Assad will, as usual, seek to nullify this initiative through delays and procrastination; he excels at deceit and evasion.

The Russian initiative, or shall we say trick, demonstrates that the security of the entire region is in danger as a result of Obama’s weakness, while also confirming that the Russians have returned to be a major player in the region. It is clear that Russia and Assad have learned the lesson from Egypt, realizing that Washington is always on the back-foot when others are taking the initiative and maneuvering.

This is what the Russians and Assad achieved by using chemical weapons as a means of maneuvering throughout the crisis, even though the Syria crisis is not just linked to chemical weapons. It also seems as if Russia has helped re-normalize relations between Assad and the international community, particularly as the Syrian crisis is humanitarian, security-related, and includes fears of national fragmentation. The Syria crisis goes beyond the issue of chemical weapons, and this is something that the Arabs should keep in mind, especially since we are now facing one of two options: Either accept the Russian-Assad game and coexist with the Syrian crisis—though the repercussions of this decision would be dire—as we did it with other crises, or turn the tables on Russia and Assad!

The latter option would require imposing a new reality on ground, and before this assertions that the Russian initiative must lead to a comprehensive political solution to the Syrian crisis, via the UN Security Council and under Chapter VII, for example. If we do not achieve this, it would mean the Arabs accepting Russia as a new regional superpower, and this is something that benefits only Iran and Assad.