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Fit For A Novel: U.S., Russia Differences Over Syria


The past couple of weeks have sometimes felt like an international thriller, as American and Russian leaders moved their chess pieces around the board, which is why we turn to columnist David Ignatius. He writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post, and he writes spy novels, thrillers like "Body of Lies," which was made into a movie. So he knows a lot about the twists and turns of the geopolitical tale that is playing out over Syria.

David, welcome to the program again.


MONTAGNE: So we have had a country weary from two long wars. We have a sitting U.S. president who has promised to wind down wars, not start them, the apparent use of chemical weapons, a former superpower in Russia trying to prop up a dictator in the Middle East - pretty good start, wouldn't you say, for a story?

IGNATIUS: It certainly is a good set-up. I'd have to say the plot elements in this one, if you tried to write them, would seem so unlikely. Also, I'd have to say, so slow-moving. I mean, this diplomacy has been going on for nearly two years and finally came to fruition this week in what seemed a series of accidents but in fact were not. You know, there's a chess game aspect to it, there's a hopscotch aspect to it, there's a musical chairs aspect to it. I mean, there are a lot of games going on as this diplomacy worked itself out.

MONTAGNE: Well, pick a couple of moments that would find their way, especially if you're just talking these last couple of weeks when things really got moving and got the world's attention.

IGNATIUS: This an example of something you see often in diplomacy and often in storytelling, which is the way in which actions are foreshadowed by characters in ways that don't immediately pay off but do later. In the case of Russia's offer to establish international control of Syria's chemical weapons, that's an idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama began talking about more than a year ago. It's an idea that Secretary of State John Kerry talks about almost every time he meets with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. And what makes this dramatic is that it finally came to fruition only after President Obama had said - I think convincingly - that he was prepared to go to war. And only then did Putin take him aside and say, you know that thing we've been talking about international control of Syrian weapons, let's see what we can do about that. And then Kerry seemed to make an inadvertent comment, but it wasn't quite as inadvertent as it seemed. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, jumped on it, and all of the sudden you had Syria saying we might be prepared to do this, and a completely different situation.

MONTAGNE: But did the Russians seize this opening? I mean, did they in a sense outfox the Americans?

IGNATIUS: I don't know if you can say they outfoxed the Americans, since this is the outcome that the United States wants. In a sense, the Russians were pressured into doing the thing that the United States has been wanting them to do now for two years, which is to move in and take ownership of the chemical weapons problem. Russian President Putin is getting some credit for this. And I think the feeling in the White House is that's fine. I wrote a year ago that U.S. policy should be focused on winning a Nobel Peace Prize for Vladimir Putin. In other words, pushing him towards precisely what he seems to have done this week. And I think that's right. It's fine for Putin to get credit doing things that are in America's interest.

MONTAGNE: Well, finally, I mean, there can only be so many more turns and twists here. Do you think these events have changed the actual story? That is, will Russia get on board with the U.S. and other countries and force some kind of end to this war?

IGNATIUS: We'll have to see whether Russia is serious about reclaiming a role as an international broker. But the more you look at this, the more questions there are. What role is Iran going to play? Is Iran too going to be invited to come into some kind of diplomatic process? How's Israel going to feel about having Iran around the table? So, this is a complicated story. The twists are, I think, just beginning. I don't promise this will keep people up at night the way a good novel does but it's going to go on for a lot more chapters.

MONTAGNE: David Ignatius writes a column on foreign affairs for the Washington Post. His most recent novel is "Blood Money." Thanks very much for joining us.

IGNATIUS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.