From Putin to pundits, here are the 10 winners and losers of the U.S.-Russian deal on Syria’s chemical weapons.
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
There is a fair amount in the recently concluded U.S.-Russian framework agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons that could belong in the domain of the tooth fairy. But should the accord be implemented, it would validate Woody Allen’s philosophy about life, slightly amended and applied to diplomacy: Success isn’t just about showing up, it’s showing up at the right time.
All the chatter about how the Obama administration could have interceded earlier in a more robust way — arming and training the opposition, creating no-fly zones — and produced a substantially different outcome remains just that. Saying that the president’s aversion to doing more created a self-fulfilling prophecy of lost opportunities, needless human misery, and gains for the bad guys misses a fundamental point.
If — and it’s still a galactic if — the new framework offers a real political way out of this emergency, it will be because a unique set of circumstances combined to produce enough urgency and ownership to do so. The Syrians created a crisis by using chemical weapons in a massive attack on August 21, President Barack Obama threatened force but then vacillated, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, recognizing both Obama’s strengths and his weaknesses, stepped up, grabbed center stage, and inserted himself directly into a process he’d long avoided. It shows that the right combination of pain and gain is what creates openings and drives big decisions.
Assuming for now that the peace train may have indeed left the station, who benefits? Here’s a short take on the winners and losers. Or, perhaps more to the point, in a region where such designations are rarely clear, here’s a look at who gains and who loses.
(1) Common Sense and Rational Thinking
Even under the best of circumstances, a limited military strike against Syria was always a very uncertain option. It carried risks without the prospect of real rewards. That a strike would have bucked up U.S. credibility and somehow retarded Iran’s nuclear ambitions or regional influence is by no means clear. Even had a limited strike been of a more robust character, it might not have ended Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons or shifted the balance of the battlefield.
Now, it’s more likely than before that Assad won’t use chemical weapons again, because the political and diplomatic spotlight is focused squarely on the issue. Simply put, then, a deal to take Assad’s chemical weapons offline has already proved far preferable to a military strike and the prospects of greater U.S. involvement in a civil war it cannot possibly end through military means.
Talk about timing. Putin, like George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, "seen his opportunities and took ’em," emerging as the Syrian crisis’s deus ex machina.
He has already achieved his minimal objectives: The chemical weapons wildcard that triggered the crisis and perhaps threatened Assad’s tenure is being dealt with. Obama won’t strike unilaterally, and there will be no U.S.-orchestrated regime change (see: Iraq and Libya). And, with the U.N. Security Council now a formal part of the disarmament process and the Russians with a veto, Moscow has a good deal of influence to block what it doesn’t like.
Moreover, Putin is now seen as a dominant and potentially positive force on the international stage. If the framework succeeds, he will have shown that the road to a solution can lie through Moscow. That will allow him to play with the next step here: a Geneva 2.0, so to speak, that can either keep Assad afloat or help ease him out if Russians interests demand it.
(3) Assad (with an asterisk)
The man without a country could also become a man without his chemical weapons. Yet implementing the chemical weapons arrangement will require keeping Assad in power. For now, that’s a win for Syria’s president — as is avoiding a military strike — even if he loses a strategic asset.
Nonetheless, Assad’s two main allies (Russia and Iran) can’t be entirely happy about how this whole affair transpired on the Syrian side. Neither the Russians nor the Americans accepted Assad’s preconditions for moving forward on the chemical weapons proposal. And, whether or not he authorized the August 21 attack, he looks reckless, incompetent, or weak.
Then, there is the consideration of how this affects Assad’s relationship with Russia. Moscow has billions invested in contracts, debt, prospects of future business, and a naval base in Syria, all of which have Assad’s name on them. If he goes, they all go, too. And Assad can’t be certain where Moscow is going or what kind of future deal Putin might be tempted to strike with the Americans.
(4) Obama — and John Kerry, too (with an asterisk)
In the wake of this deal, will the president and his activist secretary of state be viewed as strategic geniuses, exquisite masters of the calibration of force and diplomacy? I don’t think so. It’s too late for that. Too many twists and turns, ups and downs, false starts and stops, and inconsistencies in language and tactics. But there’s no doubt that the two are looking much better now than they have since the crisis began. After all, it was the president’s willingness (however reluctantly) to put force on the table and his pivot to Congress (however weak it made him appear, particularly when he didn’t have the votes) that opened up the space for Putin’s seizing on an idea that had been raised before.
Let’s also remember that the Syrian crisis has been a dog’s lunch for the president from the get-go. Until now, Obama had three options on Syria, all of them bad: do nothing in the face of the largest single use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds; develop a comprehensive military strategy, including arming the rebels with serious weapons; or take the middle road of a limited strike. Now, the president has a fourth option: avoid military action and maybe get Assad’s chemical weapons offline, weaken him, and perhaps, in cooperation with the Russians, initiate a broader process to end the civil war.
What’s more, even if the follow-up proves fantastical, the new framework will be welcomed by the American public and by Congress, more so than a limited strike. If the administration doesn’t try to oversell the deal or portray themselves as a bunch of Talleyrands, Gladstones, and Metternichs, it could get out of this crisis without any more damage to its image — which has suffered from the Keystone Cops-style handling of the situation — and with a fair share of the credit, too.
For Iran, a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis is far preferable to a military strike. Whether or not congressional opposition to U.S. military action in Syria will encourage Iran to believe that Obama won’t act against its nuclear program is impossible to say. But Tehran — which is no fan of chemical weapons, given Iraq’s use of gas against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war — has done much to preserve the military balance on the ground in Assad’s favor. A political deal keeps their man in Damascus in power. Also, like the Russians, Iran probably fears the impact of repeated strikes. Once the glass ceiling on military action is broken, the pressure, and even expectations, for U.S. action might rise. For now, that’s no longer a concern.
(6) Israel (with an asterisk)
A diplomatic solution on chemical weapons carries mixed results for the Israelis. Putting Assad’s chemical weapons stocks under international control means he can’t use them, and the danger of these weapons falling into Hezbollah or jihadist hands will be reduced. Also, there’s the long-game consideration that perhaps putting chemical weapons under international control could translate into the same being done to the highly enriched uranium needed for Iran’s bomb.
But many Israelis and much of the country’s security establishment have reason to be less than sanguine. First, on the Iran piece, additional questions about options abound: Did Obama’s willingness to forego military action signal to Iranians that he is unwilling to use force against their nuclear assets should they push to weaponize? Does America’s deep aversion to using force against Syria mean that, a year from now, neither Congress nor the public would consider and support action against Iran, too? When America appears weak, it’s almost axiomatic that many Israelis see their own hand weakened, too. At the same time, the Israelis would appear to favor an outcome to the civil war in which neither Assad nor the opposition — certainly not its Sunni extremist elements — triumph. A political solution to the chemical weapons problem strengthens the likelihood of that outcome.
(7) The Commentariat
What a field day for talking heads, pundits, and the chattering classes, including yours truly, who focus on the Middle East. And it will continue for the remainder of the Obama administration. Next stop, Iran, then perhaps back to Egypt. And don’t forget leaving Afghanistan or the evergreen pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. It reminds me of a conversation I had with former Secretary of State James Baker who, after I showed him a cable that he needed to sign authorizing our ambassador in Tunis to suspend U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1990, quipped, "Aaron, in my next life I want to be a Middle Eastern analyst just like you because I know I’ll be guaranteed a permanent source of employment."
(1) The Syrian Opposition
For the moderate Islamist opposition, putting Assad’s chemical weapons out of use must be good news. But those fighting Assad probably hoped that a U.S. military strike would accomplish that goal while also beginning the process of weakening the Syrian president’s military capacity. It’s no surprise, then, that the head of the Syrian Military Council has already denounced the new U.S.-Russian framework.
A political deal with the Russians puts to rest any hope that the Obama administration will soon ride to the opposition’s rescue and raises again the painful reality that factions must overcome their divisions if the next step in the peace process is an effort to reconvene the Geneva process. All of this also maintains among the opposition the very real fear that Assad is not only the problem — he may increasingly be viewed as part of the solution, too.
For the opposition, diplomacy should only have one outcome: Assad leaving and being held responsible for his crimes. But that just isn’t in the cards.
(2) The Saudis and the Gulf
The other clear losers here are the Saudis and Qataris, who have invested heavily in backing the opposition through a determined proxy war. For them, this is sectarian struggle that pits the Shiite forces of darkness against the forces of light: their version of Sunni Islam. The failure of the United States to strike Assad and, by implication, weaken his Iranian patrons clearly isn’t good news. Putting Putin in the driver’s seat at the U.N. Security Council, where he can help ensure Assad’s survival, is a problem, too. Paradoxically, like the Israelis, the Saudis in particular are concerned that this will constrain Obama from dealing forcefully with the Iranian nuclear issue when the time comes. (This outcome will only encourage the Saudis to intensify their support for the opposition.)
WITH SO MANY putative winners, it’s no wonder this deal came together. It’s clearly not perfect for anyone, but there appears to be enough "there there" to give this enterprise a chance to work — as long as nobody expects too much and Assad doesn’t overplay his hand by nickel-and-diming implementation. Indeed, the key to this deal is reasonable expectations. As with the rest of this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region, think about outcomes not solutions, transactions not transformations. You’ll sleep better at night.