Middle East
7:51 am
Sun September 15, 2013

Chemical Weapons Deal Loaded With Baggage

Originally published on Wed September 18, 2013 8:50 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Israel for a few hours today meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later today, Kerry will travel to Paris to try to drum up international consensus on the Syria plan with the French, British and the Saudis.

The question at hand: How to implement a far-reaching plan to rid Syria of its chemical weapons? The proposal, which the U.S. and Russia brokered yesterday, is being called one of the most challenging in the history of arms control, and it brings together two unlikely leaders: President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. We're joined now by Dmitri Trenin. He is the director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Trenin.

DMITRI TRENIN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: First off, the state news agency in Syria called the U.S.-Russia plan a starting point, but the government of Bashar al-Assad has yet to respond. Do you think this is a concern for the Kremlin? Is the Putin government confident that it has Bashar al-Assad's agreements as well as his ear?

TRENIN: Well, certainly Moscow doesn't have Damascus in its pocket. And although they believe that, this is certainly the best deal that Bashar al-Assad can have, they cannot be 100 percent sure that Bashar al-Assad will play along.

MARTIN: You say that Bashar al-Assad is not in Vladimir Putin's pocket, but can you describe the nature of that relationship, because this whole plan emerged because Russia has this very unique relationship with Syria. What kind of influence does Putin wield?

TRENIN: Well, Russia has a lot of knowledge about Syria. It has a lot of experience in Syria. I don't think that they have much influence in the traditional sense of the word. They're not pulling any strings in Damascus. Yes, they are the Syrian regime's principal or maybe exclusive supplier of arms and its most important protector on the international stage, and that counts, but they're not operating as the controlling authority in Damascus.

MARTIN: So, you're saying the Russians might have access but they don't necessarily have leverage to exert.

TRENIN: Well, they have some leverage. I think they can tell Bashar al-Assad that this is the best deal that serves the cause of regional and global peace. That if Bashar al-Assad is not cooperating then things may turn out pretty bad for him. They have - the leverage that they have is that, in principle, they can tell Bashar al-Assad if you are not listening to what we are suggesting then we can rethink the kind of support that we're giving you.

MARTIN: This Russian peace initiative, as it's being called by some, seems to have for now placed Putin in the global spotlight. How is he responding? Is he relishing this role?

TRENIN: I think Mr. Putin feels that he's taken Russia to a new level, where in his view Russia belongs, the level of one of the key decision-makers in world affairs. And I think he - well, he may celebrate a very important achievement as far as Russia's foreign policy is concerned, as far as his own diplomacy is concerned.

MARTIN: Could this backfire on it if it doesn't work, if Assad does not accept the plan or if it just can't be implemented correctly? Does Vladimir Putin lose credibility?

TRENIN: Well, Vladimir Putin and the people in Russia, as I think the people around the world, realize full well the challenges that exist. So, the plan may go awry. People may not play along. Whether Putin's credibility will suffer, I don't think it will. I think he will be seen, at least in Russia, as someone who has tried very hard. I think the onus will be placed on those who, whether if they are in Damascus or in the West or in the Arab world, who have succeeded in undermining that agreement. But as with other world leaders, Mr. Putin's principle audience is his own people. Foreign policy is important but domestic things are much more important than foreign policy.

MARTIN: Dmitri Trenin, he is the director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Thank you so much for talking with us, Mr. Trenin.

TRENIN: Well, you're most welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.