One can debate whether America should insert itself militarily into the Syrian conflict. It is far less debatable that by selling weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has precipitated President Obama's recent decision to arm the Syria rebels, initiating an American role in this military conflict.
There should also be little doubt that if Russian President Vladimir Putin can attend a G-8 Summit, wine and dine with Western leaders, and not have to pay a price for this transgression by being directly called out for his nation's profits from arms sales that have spilled the blood of tens of thousands Syrian citizens, Putin goes home the victor from this encounter.
Obama may be factually accurate in saying that the United States and Russia "share an interest in reducing the violence, securing chemical weapons and ensuring they're neither used nor subject to proliferation." However, that desire to remain cordial and avoid the bigger problem actually makes resolving the civil war in Syria more difficult.
During his remarks at a visibly strained photo opportunity, Putin denied Syria used chemical weapons and said, "Of course our opinions do not coincide, but all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria." Putin failed to mention that he intends to stop the violence by helping Assad defeat the rebel forces and re-impose his iron rule throughout the country.
The problem does not lie with what President Obama said; rather, it was what he did not say. Often, the biggest transgressions are of omission, not commission. The president would have elevated his standing and reduced Putin's by calling out the Russian's actions and elevating the cost of supplying weapons to Assad. The "agree to disagree" stance allows Russia to pour gasoline on the fire without any repercussions.
While showing great creativity in stretching to find wording that reflected agreement, President Obama did not exhibit enough resolve to say, "President Putin, we hold you directly responsible for all the deaths currently being inflicted by your weapons client in Syria." Letting Putin off the hook at such a major political event was a missed opportunity for President Obama to grasp the moral high ground.
The United States was not the only country to shuffle its feet. Other Western leaders danced around the head of a needle pressing for a joint condemnation on the use of chemical weapons with the hope that it would provide cover to protect them from blame for fiddling while Syria burned.
In 2004, I had the opportunity to meet President Assad with a Congressional delegation. He challenged each of us by asking, "What was our vision for the Syrian-American relationship?" While the other members spoke of educational exchanges and joint research, I simply said, "Syria is a country surrounded by countries that America considers friends (Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey). Someday I hope that Syria too will be considered a friend." My response made it clear that being a friend of the United States requires more than just being hospitable to visiting dignitaries.
America desperately wants to avoid conflict, but bloody battles have raged in Syria for over a year, threatening to pull other nations and by extension the United States into its vortex.
Meeting face to face with Putin without directly confronting him on his responsibility for the bloodshed is a dereliction of duty. Foisting the blame on Putin when back in the United States will not make the problem go away, and the longer the conflict in Syria wears on, the worse the situation gets.
Those without the inner strength to confront the perpetrators of violence and raise the price they pay for being belligerent would benefit from the counsel of abolitionist Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing the ground, they want rain without thunder or lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."
With the hope of bringing the sad chapter of Syrian conflict to an end as expeditiously as possible, let us hope that Western leaders find the resolve and political skill to more effectively stop Russia from fueling its flames.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).
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