Two weeks ago I called for a “diplomatic intervention” with Russia over its problematic stance on Syria. I suggested that France and Germany should take the first step as Russian President Putin paid them a visit earlier this month. That time came and went and Russia has done nothing but up the ante. Today, President Obama will have a chance to make his position clear when he meets face-to-face with the Russian president at the G20 summit in Mexico.
Without a doubt, speaking to Russia is tricky. There are all kinds of diplomatic and geo-strategic reasons for President Obama to play nice (Iran, North Korea and nuclear weapons to name a few). Fortunately, for Obama, he need not exaggerate or bluster. The facts speak for themselves.
Over 10,000 Syrians have been killed in the past 15 months. More than half of the victims in two massacres over the last two weeks have been women and children. They’ve been shot, stabbed and torched to death, with warnings of a third massacre this week in Haffeh. A UN report last Tuesday stated that the Syrian regime has used children as human shields and tortured those whose parents are suspected dissidents. The UN further reported the use of helicopter gunships by the Syrian government to fire on rebel areas known to have women and children trapped inside. And now “there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria”, according to Obama’s own Secretary of State. Whether they are new helicopters or newly repaired older models, the implication is the same: Russia continues to resupply a regime documented to be using helicopters and other Russian weapons to perpetrate atrocities.
President Obama need only state the obvious and repeat what his administration has said before, that Russia should not be “on the wrong side of history”. But, words aren’t enough. Obama must take action to make clear that the United States takes Russia’s support of Assad’s atrocities seriously. That is certainly not the message when the U.S. Defense Department continues to hold a near $1 billion contract with the state-owned Russian company, Rosoboronexport, supplying the Syrian regime. It is especially not the message when five U.S. defense firms invited Rosoboronexport to bid on selling ammunition to the United States last week and when Rosoboronexport confirmed that the United States is buying 10 more helicopters just in the wake of Secretary Clinton’s condemnatory words on the delivery of attack helicopters to Syria!
President Obama need not even say these things publicly. We know from his infamous “live mic” incident (when Obama was caught telling then President Medvedev that he would have more flexibility after being re-elected) that he is adept at sending under the radar messages to a Russian president.
So let Obama make it clear that Russia’s blocking of UN Security Council action and blatant arming of a brutal regime slaughtering its own citizens is unacceptable, that it will have consequences, that the U.S. won’t bloody its own hands by doing business with the Russian arms company supplying Syria and that the U.S. is indeed itself “on the right side of history”. And this time when speaking to the Russian president, Obama can even make sure that the microphone is off…or not.