A ‘Credible’ Threat Likely Did Not Catalyze the Russian-Syrian Gambit

A ‘Credible’ Threat Likely Did Not Catalyze the Russian-Syrian Gambit

To hear U.S. President Barack Obama and his team describe it, the eleventh-hour proposal from Russia and Syria regarding chemical weapons can be directly attributable to Obama’s resolve and toughness in issuing a credible threat. That just-so story ain’t necessarily so.

Obama did have a very credible threat from about Aug. 22 until midday on Aug. 31, when he surprised the world and announced a delay, pending authorization from Congress. For about 10 days prior to that abrupt reversal, everyone thought the United States was about to attack. Heck, even Obama’s senior staff thought the United States was about to attack. During that time, as the New York Times tick-tock makes clear, there was ample back-and-forth diplomatically about possible deals of the sort that arose suddenly in the last 48 hours. But there was no progress.

There was, however, a steady erosion in credibility of the strike. As political opposition at home mounted, it went from a near certainty of happening to a near certainty of not happening. By late Sunday and early Monday of this week, the credibility of the threat was at the lowest point it had been since the crisis began. The House was almost certainly going to vote against Obama. The Senate was a likely no, too. And Obama’s advisors had said it was "unthinkable" that the president would strike Syria in defiance of that expected congressional rebuke. With Obama’s address to the nation still to come, the game was not over, but the betting money had swung decisively in the other direction.

At that precise moment, a stray comment by Secretary of State John Kerry — a comment no more significant or meaningful than the more fulsome discussions Obama reportedly had with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit — catalyzed an abrupt Russian reversal. It apparently catalyzed more than that, since Syria appears to have conceded that it possesses chemical weapons, something they were denying when a strike looked imminent.

How could a threat, which when credibly imminent was producing defiance suddenly produce a breakthrough when it seemed least credible? Why would Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad "buy" a non-strike when they were about to get it for free?

One possible answer, offered to me by Joshua Rovner of Southern Methodist University in a private debate among academic security specialists, points to the twin role of reassurance and compellence (threat) in coercive diplomacy. As I have explained before, for coercion to work, you have to simultaneously threaten bad outcomes if the target defies you and promise good outcomes if the target acquiesces. Coercion can fail if the target doubts either side of that calculus. Perhaps, my friend speculates, Kerry’s stray comment provided the needed reassurance that was hitherto lacking.

That may be part of it, but the facts better fit another explanation: Putin and Assad pounced on the stray comment because they knew that on Monday Obama was what in business is known as a motivated buyer. Obama needed a way out from the political defeat that he was facing, so he was willing to pay as high a price as he ever was to avoid the embarrassment.

What is the price? As Middle East expert Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution explains, the most tangible result of the last 48 hours is that Obama is now a partner with Putin and Assad. Putin and Assad have bought not merely an indefinite delay in airstrikes (something they were getting anyway), but also explicit partnership with Obama and tacit rejection of the "Assad must go" plank of Obama’s Syria policy. Note that despite all of the moving rhetoric in Obama’s address about the horror of what the Assad regime did, Obama pointedly did not repeat his long-standing assertion that "Assad must go."

So long as the international community is haggling over the terms and conditions of inspections, Assad cannot go. Obama needs him to deliver the deal.

In fact, not only are strikes off the table, but arguably, other diplomatic forms of punishment that might have been considered as an alternative to strikes after a congressional rebuke — say, referring Assad to the International Criminal Court for war crimes — are also off the table.

Putin and Assad acted not because they feared the imminent strike. They acted at the moment when they least had to fear the strike in order to get the most from Obama.

Reasonable people can still debate whether this was the best available deal for Obama given the corner he found himself in. But it is a big stretch to trumpet it as a reward for resolve and coercive swagger.

Yet, as Michael Singh makes clear, the president’s spinners are right about one thing regarding the threat of force: The only way the Russian-Syrian gambit is likely to yield any positive fruit is if, going forward, the credibility of the military threat is restored. A credible military threat did not do much to generate this deal, but it will be essential to rescue American interests from the trajectory we are currently on.