Diplomacy has never witnessed anything like the dizzying and erratic sequence of events relating to Syria that began on Wednesday, August 21, and ended three and a half weeks later, on Saturday, September 14.
Who won, who lost? It’s too soon for a definite answer, but Bashar Assad is in the driver’s seat, suggesting that he, Putin, and the mullahs will gain while Obama, Erdogan, and Israel will lose.
To start, a sketch of recent events:
August 21: A chemical attack took place against civilians in Ghouta, near Damascus, presumably carried out by Syria’s Assad regime.
August 28: Barack Obama indicated an intent to use force against the Assad regime to punish it for the chemical attack.
August 31: Obama retreated and asked Congress for authorization to use force, something he did not have to do.
Over the next week, in an unexpected development, popular and congressional opposition to a strike grew to the point that it became clear that Obama would not get the authorization he sought.
September 9: Secretary of State John Kerry promised an “unbelievably small” attack and offhandedly commented that international control of Syrian chemicals could obviate the need for an attack. The Russians picked up on and ran with the latter remark.
September 10: Obama rescinded the threat to attack the Syrian government and withdrew his request from Congress.
Let’s start by assessing choices facing the two main actors in this drama:
The framework permits Bashar Assad to make the key decisions that drive the process, subject to the influence of his patrons (Moscow and Tehran) and his advisers (the Assad clan). He has two options, to comply or not to comply with the U.S.-Russian framework and the demands of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which regulates the chemical-weapons treaty Syria has promised to join. Since he is a tactically incompetent leader, his actions are difficult to predict, but I expect him not to comply because: 1. He needs these weapons to preserve his regime. 2. The civil war underway in Syria facilitates thwarting the OPCW. 3. Obama’s record suggests he won’t strike in retaliation. 4. Saddam Hussein set an appealing precedent, whereby Iraqi “cat and mouse” games slowed down and obstructed a similar regimen to destroy weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s.
With Barack Obama already in a corner because of his “red line” threat of August 2012, the U.S.-Russian agreement is a double-or-nothing gambit that places the American president at the mercy of his Syrian counterpart. If Assad complies, Obama becomes a foreign-policy genius for ridding Syria of chemical weapons without a shot. But if, as is far more likely, Assad does not comply, Obama must attack the regime to preserve his credibility, regardless of how much this runs contrary to the wishes of his leftist base and congressional opinion, the United Nations, the pope, et al., and even if it strengthens the jihadis in Syria and embroils the United States in an unwanted long-term military operation. I expect Obama will attack but without causing real damage to his own popularity or the Assad regime.
In short, I predict Assad will not comply and Obama will symbolically attack. Assuming this scenario, it means for the major actors:
Bashar Assad crows about surviving an American onslaught and is the stronger for this.
Barack Obama’s foreign-policy credibility sinks and that of the United States with him, especially vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear buildup, at least until 2017.
Whether Assad complies or not, whether Obama attacks or not, the Russian president can’t lose. Rather, he has become eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is the big winner.
Tehran gains, confident that its own nuclear infrastructure is safe from an American strike, unless Obama tears the Assad regime to bits.
The reverse for the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan: As leader of the international war party, he loses unless Obama seriously attacks Assad.
Along with Obama, Israel gains if Assad complies. But it loses if Assad does not, as is likely.
We end with two ironies: The U.S.-Russian agreement does not solve the crisis, but delays and deepens it. Obama’s almost nonchalant “red line” statement of a year ago was the obscure mistake that could precipitate the great foreign-policy fiasco of his presidency.