Daniel W. Drezner

Who “won” Syria?

Who “won” Syria?

In the wake of the yet-to-be-implemented and agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, there’s been a geyser of analyses explaining who "won" and who "lost" from these latest diplomatic exchanges.  Yes, such exercises have an element of superficiality to them, and it’s possible that outcomes like Syria have no impact whatsoever on larger questions of "credibility".  Still, perceptions matter in world politics, so these kind of assessments are inevitable.  But to develop these perceptions, you need to figure out your reference point.  When looking at the situation on the ground, what is the old status quo against which one compares the current situation? 

The majority of these columns seem to start from the August 21st attacks, and conclude that Russia and Assad are big winners and the United States is the big loser.  A minority of observers — oh, and the American people — would dissent from that view.  Fred Kaplan astutely notes that it’s possible that a deal like this can be win-win for everyone but the Syrian people. 

I’ve had considerable qualms with how the Obama administration articulated its aims over the past month.  Hell, I think Miss California articulated a better Syria policy than the Obama administration, and in less than ten seconds too.  Still, I can’t get quite as exercised about perceived "losses" for the United States.  This might be because my status quo reference point is pre-Arab Spring.  In early 2011, Bashar Assad was a stable, loyal ally to both Syria Russia and Iran, his wife was profiled in Vogue, and Syria was seen as a linchpin of any future Middle East peace. 

As a result of the past week’s worth of supposedly brilliant machinations, Russia has managed to bolster… a very wobbly ally with a government that is a shell of its former self, a pariah of the international community, under heavy United Nations Security Council sanctions, and about to be overrun with chemical weapons inspectors to destroy its WMD stockpiles.  Even if this agreement improves the odds of Assad staying in power, he’s in charge of a radically depleted asset. 

So, in other words, compared to where Russian influence in the Middle East was at the start of 2011 to now, I’m not terrifically impressed.  And it’s not like Russia’s prospects improve when you look elsewhere, I might add. 

Now, to be fair, if your reference point is, say, the middle of 2011 or the middle of 2012, when the rebels seemed poised to deal the Assad regime a mortal blow, the picture changes slightly.  From that perspective, Russia has salvaged some degree of influence from a rapidly deteriorating situation. Except that: A) it was never clear if Assad was truly on the ropes; and B) it was pretty clear that the Obama administration, while wanting Assad to go, does not necessarily want the rebels to stay.

So I’m afraid that I can’t quite agree with assessments that conclude that this deal created, "the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy."

But that’s me.  What do you think?