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Did Vladimir Putin Bait a Trap for the United States in Damascus?

Why the Russian president has every reason to cross Barack Obama’s “red line” on Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East

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U.S. President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, delivers a statement on Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Aug. 31, 2013. (Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
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The nerve-gas attack that left an estimated 1,000 or more dead civilians foaming at the mouth last month in Damascus constitutes a national security risk that the United States cannot afford to ignore, President Barack Obama argued in his televised remarks on Saturday, because it “risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” A more precise description of the attack in Damascus was that it made a mockery of Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons—a line that Obama appears to have laid down precisely because he believed that it would never be crossed, thus providing America with a bullet-proof excuse for staying out of Syria’s bloody civil war.

So, who in their right mind would aim to force Obama into a conflict he obviously wants to avoid? Syria has little military or political interest in being bombed by the United States—especially now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clearly winning the war for primacy in Syria. In the context of the regime’s recent military gains, a chemical weapons attack on a civilian neighborhood in the middle of Damascus served no strategic purpose even remotely commensurate with the risk it entailed. The same goes for Syria’s regional allies: Hezbollah has little interest in their Syrian ally appearing to be even more of a monster, and Iran’s chief interest would appear to lie in encouraging the rest of the world to forget about WMD threats until they actually acquire a nuclear bomb.

Who actually benefited from breaching Obama’s “red line”? A compelling answer can be found in the nature of the attack itself. A Sarin gas attack like the one in Damascus requires days of preparation so that the chemical agents can be mixed and loaded into specialized delivery systems by trained handlers and troops in the region can be issued gas masks and other protective clothing. Orders must travel through a defined chain of command—allowing them to be intercepted, as they apparently were by Israeli intelligence, which put them in American hands before the attack was even launched. In other words, a nerve-gas attack is not the kind of atrocity that a local commander can order up on a whim to please his goons or terrify the locals into obedience. Except in the most extreme instances of Col. Kurtz-like madness or institutional disintegration, orders to use such weapons necessarily come from the top.

Clearly, suggesting that anyone aside from Assad gave the final order to launch a massive chemical weapons attack in the center of his own capital is tantamount to suggesting that Assad is no longer in charge of his regime—a suggestion for which there is no evidence. But the chain of military command inside Syria doesn’t end with the country’s president. The idea that Assad gave the order to carry out such a massive and politically dangerous attack without the approval of his Russian and Iranian advisers is also absurd—given the regime’s near-total reliance on Russian and Iranian strategic planning, supplies, fighters, and diplomatic backing for its week-to-week survival. Ditto for the idea that Russian or Iranian officers inside Syria gave their approval for such an attack without the blessing of the men at the top of their own chains of command: Ali Khamenei in Iran, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

So, who—Khamenei or Putin—gave the OK? A reading of public statements by Iranian leaders suggests that they were at the least discomfited by the Syrian government’s actions, if not blind-sided by them. Both current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Iranian President Rafsanjani condemned the attack, with Rafsanjani openly naming the Syrian government as the perpetrator. Rouhani, for his part, called on “the international community to use all its might to prevent the use of these weapons anywhere in the world, especially in Syria”—which hardly seem like the words of a man whose immediate boss just OKed the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Which leaves the more influential and powerful authority figure in the room by nearly every conceivable measure, including disposable wealth, diplomatic throw-weight, and advanced weapons systems: Vladimir Putin.

The most illuminating way of understanding why Putin would greenlight a nerve-gas attack that would cross America’s “red lines” in Syria is therefore to ask how the Russian president understands U.S. policy toward the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—a policy whose real focus is not Syria but Iran.

***

Among students of the rougher techniques used by fascists, communists, and other old-fashioned political actors whose names rarely appear on ballots in contemporary Western democracies, the nerve-gas attack in Damascus is what’s known as a provocation. In the aesthetics of power that Putin learned from his instructors in the KGB, and that they learned from both their Leninist teachers and the Nazi enemy in WWII, a good provocation is a thing of beauty—a sinister and mind-bending event designed to elicit a response that will serve as a pretext for a predetermined course of action directed toward a larger strategic goal.

One of the classic aims of provocation as a technique is to alter the context in which future action takes place; the aggressor looks like he is defending himself, while the injured party looks like the aggressor. One major aim of this reversal is to disorient and demoralize the victim as well as anyone who is watching, a situation that often leads to paralysis, which further augments the aggressor’s tactical advantage. Some classic examples of provocation include the burning of the Reichstag, which was provoked by the Gestapo and led to Hitler’s formal seizure of power in Germany, or attacks on ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland that were staged or provoked by Nazi agents and then used as pretexts for the Nazi invasions of those countries. A more recent example of the technique can arguably be found in the 1999 bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow by Chechen terrorists—attacks that may have been sanctioned by the FSB for the purpose of bringing Putin to power.

And while Hezbollah is silent and the Iranians condemn their ally’s actions, Putin appears to be enjoying himself at his victim’s expense. Calling claims of a Syrian nerve-gas strike “utter nonsense,” Putin told the Ria Novosti news agency last week that he had not seen even the slightest proof that the Syrian government was behind any use of chemical weapons, ever—or that chemical weapons had been used at all. “If they say that the governmental forces used weapons of mass destruction … and that they have proof of it, let them present it to the U.N. inspectors and the Security Council,” Putin opined, adding, “Claims that the proof exists but is classified and cannot be presented to anybody are below criticism.” Putin also seemed to delight in personally tweaking Obama—addressing him not as President of the United States but as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and urging him to embrace nonviolence.

If what happened in Damascus was a provocation, authored by Putin and intended to display American weakness to the world—the next question then becomes, why? Or, to put a finer point on things, what purpose, apart from the obvious pleasure of making Obama look like a sissy, was worth the risk of being held responsible—even partially responsible—for killing more than 1,000 people with weapons whose names are bywords for horror and whose use is a heinous crime under international law.

A worthy prize is not hard to find. While Obama was making his calculations about staying out of Syria—calculations that appear in retrospect to have been both reasonable and false—Putin was making his own calculations about the power vacuum that Obama had left behind in the Middle East. His first conclusion from studying that vacuum appears to have been that Obama wasn’t serious about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb—since that would mean involvement in another shooting war in the region. His second conclusion was that the best way to make that conclusion obvious was by crossing Obama’s “red line” in Syria—in response to which the U.S. president would probably do nothing, or next to nothing. What made the “red line” a perfect target for a provocation was that the line was never serious; it was a fig-leaf for excusing American inaction in a bloody civil war while keeping alive the president’s stated commitment to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

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Did Vladimir Putin Bait a Trap for the United States in Damascus?

Why the Russian president has every reason to cross Barack Obama’s “red line” on Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East