Skip to content Skip to footer

Could Russia-US Deal on Syria Chemical Weapons Lead to a Non-Imperial, New Internationalism?

The United States, France and Britain have agreed to seek a “strong and robust” UN resolution that sets precise and binding deadlines on removal of chemical weapons in Syria.

The United States, France and Britain have agreed to seek a “strong and robust” U.N. resolution that sets precise and binding deadlines on removal of chemical weapons in Syria. The announcement comes two days after the United States and Russia brokered a deal for Syria to surrender its full chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014. We speak to The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has covered Russia for years, and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.


Amy Goodman : The United States, France, and Britain have agreed to seek a “strong and robust” U.N. resolution that sets precise and binding deadlines on removing chemical weapons in Syria. The announcement comes two days after the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal on Syria to remove or destroy its full chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014. Under the agreement, Syria must also provide a full inventory of its chemical weapons within one week and destroyed equipment for producing chemical weapons and filling munitions with poison gas by November. On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced the deal at a joint news conference they came after three days of talks in Geneva, Switzerland.

John Kerry : We are committed to try to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world. And I think we would both agree that we had a constructive conversation regarding that, but those conversations are continuing and both of us want to get back to them now.

Sergey Lavrov : We’re here, basically, to discuss the issue of chemical weapons in Syria now that the Assad government joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. We have to engage our professionals together with the Chemical Weapons Prohibition Organization as we agreed with the United Nations to design a road which would make sure this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as practical.

Amy Goodman : The Syrian government has welcomed the agreement and the U.N. confirmed on Saturday it had received all documents necessary for the country to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it will do starting mid-October. Meanwhile, Syria’s opposition, the Syrian National Coalition has rejected the Geneva chemical weapons deal claiming it will only embolden the Syrian government to escalate its military offensive. On Sunday, Secretary of State, John Kerry, reiterated the use of unilateral American military force was still on the table if Syria fails to follow through.

John Kerry : Now this will only be as effective as its implementation will be. And president Obama has made it clear that to accomplish that, the threat of force remains. The threat of force is real, and the Assad regime and all those taking part need to understand that president Obama and the United States are committed to achieve this goal.

Amy Goodman : Well, for more we’re joined now by two guests, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the nation. She blogs at and is a columnist also for the . Katrina vanden Heuvel has reported on Russia for decades and recently cowrote an article called, ” Syria: The Alternative to War .” And we are joined by Andrew Bacevich; Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University, military historian, and Vietnam veteran who’s written several books, most recently, “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.” We welcome you both. Katrina, let’s begin with you. Take us back. A lot has happened over the last few days. How did this happen, this agreement between the United States and Russia?

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Well, first of all, it is good to see the drumbeat of diplomacy and not the drumbeat of war, because I’d argue in the post-Cold War world period we’ve seen too much and too quick a resort to military force and not diplomacy. I think we are hearing different stories and there’s a need for more reporting on how this proposal actually emerged. I have been reading a a little in the Russian press. Foreign Minister Lavrov had an interview in a newspaper — sorry, on a TV. channel called Vyesti. There’s a lot of talk about how Putin and president Obama, almost more than a year ago in Mexico, in Los Cabos, began to discuss this proposal. Then of course is the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg a few weeks ago. So, it has been on the table. I think this idea that Secretary of State Kerry made a gaffe is not plausible.

I think there has been real discussion of this, and you saw in those images of Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, someone sitting in between them, was a very interesting man named is Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the UN Arab League Envoy to Syria to resolve the conflict. And this Geneva peace process has been going on. So, I think what has been too often ignored in the media here because there is so much attention to the leader Putin, we often don’t hear him in the denigration of Putin, is that Russia also has a vital interest in finding a way to resolve politically the conflict in Syria because they don’t want to see chemical weapons awash in the Middle East, they don’t want to see extremists spreading beyond Syria’s borders and they see the Arab awakening and a very different light. So, I think finally you see national security interests aligned and I think it is a critical, possibly critical turning point in international relationships to see a revival of a much-needed U.S.-Russian cooperative relationship that has been lost in the last decade.

Amy Goodman : Of course the gaffe, or the not gaffe, that you’re referring of John Kerry’s was when he went on the air and when a reporter asked him what could Syria do to avoid a U.S. military strike.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Right, and I mean the idea of putting chemical weapons, Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and beginning the dismantling and destruction of those chemical weapons, is a far more effective deterrent than might have been these limited military strikes that the U.S. was proposing. So, clearly, I think this has been discussed. In fact, there was a piece of legislation in Congress, strangely, from Senator Manchin — Senators Manchin and Heitkamp on the eve of what might have been the debate in Congress on the road to authorization of military strikes. Similar to this, which was to give Assad 45 days to agree to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy and dismantle his weapons. But this was a far more effective one because it also, and Professor Bacevich could speak more to this, but, I think it is very important that it could also revive the role and legitimacy of the United Nations, which as an institution is too often dismissed in this country, but I think it still plays a vital role in matters of war and peace if we want to avoid military conflicts. And a U.S.-Russian relation — a more productive U.S.-Russian relationship is key to that as well.

Amy Goodman : It’s interesting, President Obama was invoking international law, which many would say it’s a good thing to do, to justify U.S. military strike, but now it is being used —

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Now it’s being used — I mean, he was using international law in some ways to violate international law in this talk of how enforcing the norms against chemical weapons. There are other ways. And now it is being used — and there will be disputes along the road. I mean, the idea of moving toward some of this process of documenting the stockpiled materials, dismantling by mid-2014? Those who know far more about this process understand how aggressively quick that is. The United States and Russia still haven’t fully complied with the Chemical Weapons Convention. They still have chemical weapons. However, Sergey Lavrov is an interesting figure because he was the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations during the Iraq process. He has worked closely with key weapons inspectors like Charles Duelfer, Hans Blix, he follows this and I think it will be key to put together an inspection team that understands the need to move. And we need to test Russia’s resolve, too. So this idea that, oh, this is so dangerous because Russia is a rogue actor, which you hear in the sort of anti-Russian pro-war lobbies in this country; let’s test Russia’s resolve. This is a moment to put Putin and Russia’s credibility on the line in terms of moving toward this and let’s see the U.S. and how it can move forward. The one dispute that we will see emerge, and both Lavrov and Kerry have tried to allied it, is the issue of article 7 in the U.N. Charter, and whether — what kind of force that might mean if there is noncompliance. It could well mean just sanctions. It does not mean military strikes.

Amy Goodman: Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that national interests drove Russian President Vladimir Putin to propose the Syrian disarmament agreement that has averted U.S. strikes, at least for now.

Joseph Biden : When the President went to the G8 after a long discussion that happened before he got in the helicopter — he is the one who raised with Putin, why don’t we jointly, why don’t we jointly, why don’t we jointly, since it is not in either one of our interests to allow this largest stockpile in the world to go unattended, why don’t we jointly move to the United Nations and jointly secure it and destroy it? A lot of cynics were of the view Putin would not respond, but he did. But he did respond, not because he is a good guy, because this is a naked self interest, the naked self interest of Russia to see these weapons not fall in anyone’s hands.

Amy Goodman: Professor Bacevich, that was Vice President Biden in Iowa, on Sunday. The self-interest of both countries, as opposed to relying on their good intentions?

Andrew Bacevich: Well, rightly so. I have to say, I think I’m a little less optimistic than Katrina is about this leading to some larger benefit. I mean, let’s assume, and it is only an assumption, that the deal is actually going to work out, and that the Syrians will comply. The Syrian government is not a puppet to the Russians, they have their own interests. But, let’s assume that the chemical weapons deal actually pans out and this very ambitious schedule, by next year, can be met, that really doesn’t get to the crucial issue. Assad used chemical weapons because he is in the midst of fighting a brutal and bloody civil war. This does not resolve the Civil War. In some respects, I think that the focus — shifting the focus to chemical weapons, and this promising development, causes us to take our eye off the ball. The civil war is going to continue. And quite frankly, I would expect that the hawks in our country will pocket the chemical weapons deal and then begin to beat the war drums again, insisting that the United States can’t stand by and allow Assad to continue to wage war against his own people. So I think that there is a lot more to the story that is going to develop.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: There is the hope in this emerging U.S.-Russian relationship that has come out of what is been a Cold War period of moving toward the reviving the Geneva peace process and a political settlement to resolve the Civil War. I agree with you that if it ends just even at this very ambitious chemical weapons proposal and compliance component, it doesn’t deal with the underlying problems. But, to deal with the underlying problems, you have to resolve some of the relationship problem between the United States and Russia.

Andrew Bacevich: But we — I myself, at least, have no understanding of what kind of dialogue has been going on between Syria and Russia on this matter. If I put myself in Assad’s shoes, Putin wants me to play along with this, to cooperate and destroy my chemical weapons. Seems to me, Assad would say, well, what do I get? If I were Assad, I would be asking for continued Russian support in terms of conventional weapons to enable me to continue the civil war. And of course, even as the United States is claiming a diplomatic triumph, we are increasing our effort to support the militants. So, again, this is a good thing, avoiding a U.S. military strike is a good thing. But, I’m not persuaded that it is going to be the turning point that most of the reporting to suggests it might be.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I’m certainly not an optimist when it comes to U.S.- Russian relations. I’m skeptical, but I do believe that we haven’t seen anything like this in over a decade and there’s a real possibility. Russia, by the way, has not — they fulfilled the existing military contracts, but they have not supplied these anti-air — the aircraft. I think the peace conference process that could emerge from this could grapple with some of the issues you’re talking about. I definitely think we already see attacks on this agreement. You knew it was a pretty good agreement with Senator McCain and Senator Graham jumped five minutes afterwards to say, this isn’t going to work, this is appeasement. There is a ferocious anti-Russian pro-war lobby in this country. But, as Ronald Reagan once said about Mikhail Gorbachev, I wouldn’t say trust, but verify. But, I would say test, test, test. And in that testing of Russia, will also be testing of its relationship with Assad and testing our relationship with the rebels, which could well break the possibility of a peace agreement.

Amy Goodman: I mean, doesn’t the U.S. also have some leverage on the side of the rebels? The U.S. — the major force behind many of the rebels is Saudi Arabia

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: That’s right.

Amy Goodman: And the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Bandar. He has been pressing the U.S. to get militarily involved as U.S. presses Russia to press Syria. Can’t the U.S. turn this around and press Saudi Arabia?

Andrew Bacevich: Could, I think. But, there was an interesting report in today’s New York Times about the militants and the militant reaction to this, and they think they’ve been hung out to dry. I mean, to resolve the core issue between Assad and the militants presumes that on both sides, there is a willingness to seek some sort of settlement, to cut a deal, and I don’t claim any expertise in what the militants are all about, but I have seen no evidence that they are willing to negotiate with us Assad. They want him gone. They want this regime removed.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I think just geopolitically stepping back for a moment, one element of the revived U.S.-Russian cooperative relationship, if it holds, is also Iran. I mean, you have to engage Russia in resolving Iran. And this could be the precursor toward something that is not military. It could be. So, I think that in addition, something you have written about, Professor Bacevich, Russia, we forget, president Putin was the first to call President George W. Bush after 9/11 and offer Russian assistance, he permitted U.S. military bases in Central Asia, Russia has assisted the U.S. with transit in and out of Afghanistan as the U.S. extricates itself from Afghanistan, that relationship becomes important. So, there are various points where I think you keep that together and then you work out — I think Russia probably in some ways would like to get rid of Assad. The regime change politics of the U.S. in the last decade has been one of the sticking points, major sticking points in the way Putin views U.S. policies in the world. As I said earlier, the media in this country in this last week after Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, it’s been like horse race coverage, right? Putin has poked Obama in the eye. I mean, gimme a break. These are matters of war and peace, and the idea of who’s up who’s down — and you could even see Kerry and Lavrov and Biden trying to finesse that. Because, that is not what is needed at this moment. What is needed is substantive discussion of substantive issues and not who’s up who’s down.

Amy Goodman: There’s also a new president of Iran, right? And he, Hassan Rouhani, will be speaking the same day, next week, at the United Nations as president Obama and has signaled he wants something new, a new approach to the United States. But, is this so much Russia bailing out the U.S. out, as it is people in the United States — I won’t even say the peace movement, because it’s less formal than that; the overwhelming number of Americans who said no to war and Obama needed a way out. I mean, I think back to Iraq 10 years ago, and all of the countries who had their plans proposed, they were just pooh-poohed and the corporate media would always not even report them. So, this is taking one of those plans presented because Obama saw the wall he faced, Republican and Democrat — in fact, many, many Democrats, Professor Bacevich.

Andrew Bacevich: Katrina knows Russian politics so much better than I do, but certainly in the media, Putin is portrayed as sort of this thuggish figure who’s bearing his chest literally. But, I think he’s also and incredibly shrewd politician, and he recognized that the opportunity was available to throw President Obama a lifeline when the president found himself really in an utterly exposed position with virtually no international support, very little domestic support. Putin throws him the lifeline to allow the President to back away from this threat to use force and in so doing, Putin now elevates himself on the world stage into being a significant statesman.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Putin is neither a democratic nor a virtuous leader, but he is a geopolitical tactician. My husband, Stephen Cohen, has a piece at today called ” Demonizing Putin Endangers U.S. Security ,” and I think is worth looking at, because our media is so hung up on these images of Putin on horseback and that he’s a KGB thug. And I think you make a very good point, Amy, and I didn’t bring it up because it was U.S.-Russia relations, but there’s so much talk about the use of force and how that was the credibility issue that moved us here. There was also the democracy threat. There was the democracy of people standing up — one would hope a more — an antiwar movement, but war weary Americans for reasons Professor Bacevich has documented in his book. So across the board you had a sense in this country, people — people, wise, not the elite, people say no to war.

There was also, I think, a very important moment in Britain when the Parliament voted not to join the United States. That special relationship has defined the U.S. going to war into military action, certainly in Iraq. Poodle, Tony Blair was a critical element of that. I will say that, at The Nation we are very proud our former nation intern who heads the Labor Party, Edward Miliband, for having understood the poisoning of the well of Iraq was one that the British people also understood. So, I hope, as during Iraq, there was talks of the other superpower, those millions in the streets, that this is a moment — and again, Professor Bacevich could speak to this, because he’s been writing about it, it seems to me it’s a moment for an opening for new foreign-policy a new national security. Now you will accuse me of being hopeful, because there’s a deep state in this country, and we see it in the surveillance state, but there is a sense among American people, it seems to me, not of isolationism, but of a new internationalism that is not defined by military strikes, by drones, certainly not by land wars anymore. And to seize that non-imperial, democratic narrative of a new national foreign policy seems key.

Andrew Bacevich: You are optimistic and hopeful, and I would like to share that, but what we need to see then is somebody on the national stage who will champion that cause. Who is the influential member of the Senate or somewhere in our political elite who is going to stand up and say, yes, this is the crusade I’m going to lead? I just don’t see that figure.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I agree. On the other hand I do believe that so much of the change in our country has come from social movements, and in social movements, and then social movements finding inside the political system, someone who will be pushed and moved and speak and articulate those ideas. And I agree with you, we need that, because, certainly, I do think we have seen a rebuke of the kind of the neo-imperial, the neo-liberal foreign policy in this last period, but it is powerful bipartisans.

Andrew Bacevich: Sadly, that person who was supposed to be that champion was Barack Obama. He was supposed to be the agent of change. I voted for the guy twice, but he has proven to be a disappointment, and quite frankly, almost, sort of out of his depth in trying to deal with these international issues.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I do think credit should be given. To appoint — he needed a lifeline, so going to Congress was also that in a way.

Andrew Bacevich: Yes, it was.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: And by the way, we should have a president who goes to Congress to seek declarations of war by the Constitution.

Andrew Bacevich: Yes, we should.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: On the other hand, he was nimble, he was nimble it seems to me, in seizing this moment. And, you know, we have had presidents who have just hunkered down because of credibility. Because, as you well know inside the Beltway, how do people measure credibility? Boldness often means just…

Andrew Bacevich: Go bomb somebody.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Go bomb somebody, and we need to redefine credibility.

Amy Goodman: Well, I want to thank you, Katrina vanden Heuvel; Editor and Publisher of The Nation magazine. Professor Bacevich, I would like ask you to stay after break to talk about “Breach of Trust” your new book, and then we’re going to hear from Angela Davis on this 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Birmingham Church.

Now Let’s Stop Lethal Aid to Syria

Yes, we really mean it – your gift makes a difference.

Did you know that of the millions of people who read Truthout, fewer than 1 percent make a donation? But even with that small number who give, Truthout is still overwhelmingly donor-funded. Every donation that comes our way makes an outsized impact for every single one of our readers.

If you can find a few dollars here or there to support the independent, always-honest journalism we produce, please consider making a donation. All gifts are tax-deductible and go directly to funding our justice-driven work. Will you give today?