Foreign Policy Blogs

It’s almost the same old story….


It is a shame that Vladimir Putin could not acquire the girth of predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Then it would make it even more appropriate that he is channeling the role of Senior Ferrari in the real life Syria-version of the film Casablanca.

In Casablanca, robust Sydney Greenstreet deftly played Senior Ferrari. His character was the proudly self-proclaimed “leader of all the illegal activities in Casablanca” and thus “I’m an influential and respected man.”

Ferrari knew how to cut a deal, how to bluff and how to focus on getting something for himself out of almost everything. He politely referred to that as his “carrying charges.”

And thus we come to Putin and Syria.

Russia has a very limited hand in the game of international diplomacy. It can say no — a powerful tool to block action (as opposed to taking pro-active positive steps). It can bluff since people think it will say no. Or it can actively thumb its nose at the world community and support the bad guy of the moment because it can safely bet the international community will never do anything in any form to “Mother Russia.”

Thus Russia has a blank check, albeit of limited means.

Yet like any gambler, Russia fears a good run by another player. So like Senior Ferrari, Putin must seize the moment to strike the best deal possible.

In Casablanca, no one really trusted anyone else. You knew that going in. Yet everyone needed the other guy to make the system work. And that is where we are in Syria.

Putin knows that the U.S. can act alone. It may fail as it did in Iraq. Yet from Moscow’s point of view, a U.S. military strike on Syria would also undermine Russia’s biggest trump card on the international stage: Its veto power in the U.N. Security Council. In other words, its ability to say no.

That would be a dangerous precedent. So Russia set about making itself a pro-active players in the Syrian showdown, so that it could not be dismissed and sidelined.

From Russia’s perspective, a deal on chemical weapons that does not include a ceasefire offers benefits – the “carrying charges.” Securing Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles, let alone dismantling them, will be a time-consuming and challenging. The many delays could take months and give Assad more time to defeat the rebels.

U.S. intelligence believes Syria has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, most of it sarin and VX stored as unmixed components. They may be stored in an estimated 50 different sites, says the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. Former U.N. and U.S. weapons inspector David Kay thinks it’ll take 500 to 1,000 people just to secure the sites.

When Senior Ferrari offered a faux lament on the death of another denizen, he was quickly rebuked as a hypocrite. He agreed he was and then noted his true sadness was his possible losing out on a deal. Putin has no such candor, insisting that “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law” – almost three years of Russian backing of Assad precluded a political solution from the start.

At least Senior Ferrari was honest about his behavior.

During his negotiations, Rick insisted that all the key staff remain at their jobs and that Sam, the piano player, still receive 25 percent of the profits take. Ferrari laughed and said “I know he gets 10 percent” but that he is worth 25 percent.

Rick was looking after their interests. Not quite the same story for those opposing Assad.

Perhaps the clearest losers are the pro-Western factions of the Syrian rebels, who have worked to bring the United States into a direct military role in the war. They now see how anti-involvement U.S. citizens and Congress are to do anything substantive. Also likely to be disappointed are the Saudis, their Persian Gulf allies and the Turks, all of whom oppose Assad and have sought to draw the U.S. and its allies into a larger military role in Syria.,0,4969084.story

There is at least one more parallel.

There is a rush to get this done, by any means possible. Lots of promises with folks who must be reluctantly trusted. But when you have a window to get out – as Rick did in Casablanca and now the White House has in Syria – you move fast and don’t worry about niceties.

“Should we draw up papers, or is a handshake good enough,” Senior Ferrari asked Rick, as they closed the deal on his nightclub and as an aide who looks amazingly like Assad bustles about. “It’s “certainly not good enough. But since I’m in a hurry, it’ll have to do,” Rick replied.

And those handshakes are so easy to do.

Photo credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin



Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.