In a struggle to rid Syria of its chemical weapons Russia's President Vladimir Putin made an unexpected strategic move: On September 11, 2013, his op-ed "A Plea for Caution" got published by the New York Times. Although the date is tragic and significant for the American people, Putin made no references to 9/11 and a terrorist threat in his piece. The article comes ahead of the Geneva meeting of John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, who are to discuss on Thursday a plan for Syria proposed by Mr. Putin. One may argue that Putin is a tyrant and that he is the last person who should talk about democracy and the rule of law, but his article delivers some very important points that usually get distorted when the media in the U.S. covers Putin or the country he leads.
First of all, Russia's president reiterates a point which seems to be ignored by the Obama administration: the opposition in Syria is not homogeneous. As Mr. Putin puts it, "There are more than enough Al-Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations." The Obama administration clearly failed to adequately assess composition of the Syrian opposition before embarking on its plan to engage in the country. Quite convincing evidence of this was obtained by the New York Times, which posted a video showing the execution of Syrian soldiers by a group of rebels. When asked if those rebels could be considered U.S. allies, John Kerry argued that "those men in those videos are disadvantaged by the U.S. response to the chemical weapons used, because it, in fact, empowers moderate opposition." It's not entirely clear why moderate opposition and not extremists would be empowered by the U.S. response, when telling between the two is very hard.
Later in his article, Putin rightfully argues that the use of force is only possible in "self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council." Anything else would constitute an "act of aggression" under customary international law. Whether we like it or not, this is what every country has to adhere to, otherwise we do not need the United Nations at all. One should understand that an act of aggression is a crime under the law. The United States as a state is one of the primary sources of international law, along with the International Court of Justice and the United Nations. An act of aggression by the U.S. could be interpreted as a full-fledged war by other states, such as Iran, and Iran would then have a right to engage in this war to defend Syria.
The White House clearly didn't see such a bold appeal by Mr. Putin coming, which is why comments by a senior White House official given to CNN on this piece were very modest. It is not clear yet whether the Obama administration thinks these points from Putin's Times op-ed are valid, but publishing the piece was definitely a very important and deliberate move on the eve of the Geneva meeting. Clarification of Putin's position on Syria may or may not influence American policymakers on Thursday when John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov gather to discuss the proposed plan for Syria, but now there are hopes that an intervention and potentially a war could be averted.