No one should harbor any illusions that Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys magical influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nor should one assume that Putin is going to be in a position to force a deal on securing Syria's chemical weapons down Assad’s throat. Putin, like President Obama, is clearly improvising as he tries to forestall U.S. military action.
This week's negotiation between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s very capable foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has high-stakes. The goal is to come up with parameters for international supervision, monitoring, and, ultimately, the verified destruction of Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons. Doing that kind of work in the middle of a civil war in a way that meets Kerry’s yardstick (“It has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic.”) will be enormously challenging for all the reasons that various experts have been offering in recent days. Mr. Lavrov, a veteran of the endless wrangling in New York over the United Nations monitoring of Iraq’s "weapons of mass destruction" programs back in the 1990s, knows these issues cold.
The hardest part, almost certainly, will be to come up with an enforcement mechanism, ideally embodied in a United Nations Security Council resolution, outlining possible consequences in the event that Assad reneges or cheats on the deal, which seems likely. As Putin’s brief comments on Tuesday illustrated, Russia’s long-standing opposition to any form of military action remains firm. Moscow will not permit the type of U.N. resolutions that created the legal basis for U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against Saddam Hussein during the 1990s let alone the more recent example of Libya. Russia abstained from the March 2011 resolution aimed at protecting vulnerable Libyan civilians when Muammar el-Qaddafi was still in power.
Squaring these kinds of circles is the essence of diplomacy. Whether Kerry and Lavrov can get there is truly anyone’s guess at this point.