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Cutting the Salami With Putin

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The initial euphoria which greeted the U.S.-Russian agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons was followed by disagreements between the two countries. The ink was barely dry on the agreement sketched out between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Kerry in Geneva on September 14 when the U.S. and Russia went public with their conflicting positions. For anyone who has studied Russian President Putin, this was no surprise.

When I was researching my new novel, The Russian Endgame, a Russian diplomat at their embassy in Washington agreed to talk with me on the condition of anonymity. My two lead Russian characters, Dimitri Orlov, and President Kuznov, both former KGB agents, are based in part on Putin. The diplomat explained to me how Putin negotiated. It went like this.

Imagine a large salami in the center of a table. Putin is on one side and his adversary is on the other. First, Putin offers to cut the salami down the middle. Sounds fair. So he takes out his knife and cuts it. Then puts one half in his bag on the floor.

He looks at the half of remaining salami on the table and says, "Now let's talk about how we'll divide the salami." He continues dividing up a smaller and smaller pieces in this manner until he either has virtually all the salami or his adversary realizes what's happening and breaks off negotiations.

That Russian diplomat's lesson seems particularly apt in connection with the Syria chemical arms situation. The United States came to the table poised to launch a missile attack on Syria and demanding Assad's ouster. Putin, in defense of his staunch ally, was determined to prevent either of these from occurring.

In the first cut of the salami, the first round of negotiations, President Obama agreed to call off a missile attack on Syria. He stopped demanding Assad's ouster, notwithstanding the brutal and barbaric way in which Assad was waging war on his own people. In return, the Russians agreed that they would support a binding U.N. Security Council resolution to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal.

The bottom line was no attack by the U.S. and Assad stays in power. Putin put those into his bag, and the parties moved on to negotiations over the rest of the salami, namely the binding U.N. resolution.

In these negotiations, Washington began by insisting that the resolution must provide for the use of force if Assad failed to comply. Otherwise, the resolution would be meaningless. If the issue had to be brought back to the Security Council before force could be used, Russia could employ its veto to block that force.

The Russians are good negotiators. To buttress their position against a term authorizing the use of force, they threw up a giant smoke screen. They argued that the rebels, not Assad, were responsible for the use of nerve gas.

It was amazing that the Russians could make this argument with a straight face. A U.N. report fixed the blame on the Syrian regime with clear physical supporting evidence. President Obama in his speech to the General Assembly called the evidence overwhelming.

Last Thursday, the U.S. and Russia reached agreement on the terms of the U.N. resolution. A State Department official portrayed the agreement as an "historic and unprecedented achievement." But this is absurd. The critical fact is that the resolution does not authorize the use of force for noncompliance. It simply provides that Assad will face the threat of unspecified measures. In the words of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, the U.N. resolution includes "no coercive measure" to ensure Syria's compliance. In order to obtain authorization for the use of force, the U.S. would have to return to the U.N. where it would confront a Russian veto.

This was the second cut of the salami. Putin has gotten rid of the authorization of force in the resolution. He can tuck that into his bag as well.

On to the remaining part of the salami. The parties must now discuss and agree upon the details for the gathering and destruction of Assad's chemical weapons. The resolution requires that Assad grant immediate and unfettered access to all sites and individuals linked to the Syrian chemical weapons program. It is a virtual certainty that the parties will have disagreements about implementation of this resolution. The Russians will contend that Assad has granted complete access. The Americans will insist that he has not.

There will be disputes about how and where the chemicals should be destroyed. Russia may offer to send its troops to oversee the destruction rather than a neutral third party. More negotiations will occur. Russia has already taken a hard position on those. Lavrov said that violations must be "proven by 100 percent." More compromises will take place. More cuts of the salami.

While these are occurring well into next year, Assad will have ample time and opportunity to hide a portion of his chemical weapons. After all, Syria has a considerable land mass and plenty of potential storage sites not easily accessible.

As a result, we are likely to end up with the destruction of a portion, but not all of Syria's chemical weapons. Assad stays in power. Perhaps even aided by Russian troops sent to Syria to oversee the chemical weapon destruction. The U.S. ends up with a very small slice of what had been a large salami.