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Will Syria crisis create a new world order that favours Russia?

The United States is eyeing 36 Syrian military targets for its “unbelievably small” strike that Secretary of State John Kerry hinted. But wait! The world may yet be spared yet another war.

There may still be hope over the Syrian conundrum following Kerry’s offer to not resort to the military option at all if Syria were to turn “every single bit” of its chemical weapons arsenal to the international community by the end of this week.

Barack Obama. AP image

Barack Obama. AP image

This promising deal seems to have been sweetened further by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s advice to Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international monitors if it could prevent the American military strikes on Syria.

After meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Moscow, Lavrov also called on Syria to ratify the Convention on Chemical Weapons. “We do not know whether Syria will agree to this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country will avoid strikes, we will immediately begin working with Damascus. We call on the Syrian leadership not only to agree on a statement of storage of chemical weapons under international supervision, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

After Lavrov’s statement, the Syrian foreign minister reportedly said that Syria accepted the Russian proposal to put its chemical arsenal under international control.

This is an important breakthrough. The US has softened its position and suggested an escape route, a face saving formula after having gone down the Syrian road in a hawkish manner all this while. Russia too has reciprocated and done its bit in urging Syria to clutch on to this last straw dangled by the US.

Now the ball is in Syria’s court. It has to come up with a final determination. Assad has to decide in double quick time whether he beats a strategic retreat for now or whether he is as rigid as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi. The world knows the gory end that Hussein and Gadaffi met.

But there is one crucial difference here which may avert another almost inevitable war, triggered by the US and its allies, in the Middle East. It is the Russia factor.

Russia has faced up to the US on the Syrian question like never before. Russia never warned the US that it will “assist” a besieged nation, whether in the Middle East or anywhere else, like it has done in case of Syria. Perhaps, Russia has been wizened by its foreign policy reversals in Iraq and Libya – the two nations it considered as its allies, like Syria.

The only difference, and a big difference at that, is that Russia never flexed its diplomatic muscle when the Iraqi and the Libyan foreign policy disasters for Russia were unfolding. Perhaps, Russia decided to gather courage and put an end to the Americans swallowing up one after another Russian allies in the region. Perhaps, the present Russian saber rattling in the case of Syria was considered as “the last straw” by the Russian strategic establishment; but it already seems to be paying dividends.

The jigsaw puzzle of Syria has thrown open a new trend in international politics. If the West’s looming military intervention in Syria is averted, it would be a victory for Russia’s new-found US containment policy. In that event, it would also inevitably mean that Russia would be emboldened to challenge the US virtually at every drop of the hat whenever an international crisis erupts.

For the US, it would send a mixed bag of signals. While the US would be grudgingly ceding more diplomatic space to arch-rival Russia, it would also mean that President Barack Obama would be averse to act as a global policeman for the rest of his tenure which ends in January 2017. Perhaps the responsibility of being a Nobel Peace Prize winner is weighing down on him, and rightly so.

Also, a critical question for Obama’s consideration is is that here the world is not witnessing a situation where a regime is engaged in one-sided slaughter of its own population but a civil war where, according to estimates of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 43 % of the 100,000 (one lakh) Syrians believed to have died in the conflict thus far were fighting for President Bashar al-Assad.

There is a signal for China too in the rapidly unfolding Syrian conundrum. If the Syrian war is eventually averted, it would be largely because of the bellicose stand taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Clearly, Putin has indulged in a high stake gamble. The opinion in the US on the question to bomb Syria or not is clearly divided. In contrast, Putin is the undisputed strongman of Russia and there are no dissensions.

The signal for China is, in case the Syrian war is averted, that Beijing too can flex its muscle and put its foot down whenever the next international crisis erupts. Thus far, China has resorted to hard policy decisions or statements vis a vis the US only in context of its bilateral relations with the US. China’s diplomatic and strategic averments have thus far not taken such a bellicose turn as Russia’s challenge to the US on the Syrian issue.

The Chinese have so far been only a showpiece dragon, not a fire-spewing dragon for the Americans. If they see the Russian bear successfully forcing a change in the American eagle’s swoop on the international chess board, the Chinese too might get ideas.
It will be interesting to see how the Syrian crisis unfolds in the next few days. All the principle actors in the Syrian drama have blinked – Syria, the US and Russia – but what will matter eventually would be the denouement.

The Syrian crisis may well script today's new international order.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst. He tweets @Kishkindha.