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Obama's Rocky Path to Success in Syria

In Project Syndicate (Worldwide Distribution), 24 September 2013    

NEW YORK – In my experience, if you are attacked for your diplomacy from both left and right, by doves and hawks, and by internationalists and isolationists, you probably have it just right. In the avalanche of commentary on this month’s US-Russia deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, few have been prepared to call it a “win-win-win” outcome for the United States, Russia, and the Syrian people. But – at least so far – that is what it is. President Barack Obama and his team, despite some missteps, deserve most of the credit.

The charge sheet against Obama over Syria is long. The US, it is said, took no decisive action while 100,000 Syrians were dying, and it had no strategy to end the conflict. Obama created expectations that the US would act if chemical weapons were used, only to stall when the time came. Then, when a response became unavoidable, he threatened both too much and too little military force. He paid too little, then too much, attention to domestic opponents of intervention. Above all, he allowed an ever-cynical Kremlin to outplay the US diplomatically.

But consider the constraints. There was never a time in the crisis, until the chemical-weapons issue erupted, when US military intervention in any form seemed likely to save more lives than it would endanger. The increasing influence of jihadists in the rebel ranks made support for an outright opposition victory increasingly untenable. There simply was not enough hard evidence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, at least before the Ghouta massacre in August, to pressure Russia – either in the United Nations Security Council or the court of global opinion – to reconsider its reflex support of the regime.

Moreover, while the Obama administration remained determined to preserve US leadership in responding – with force, where necessary – to mass atrocity crimes (the global “responsibility to protect” agenda), a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has left Americans desperately war-weary. That is true in the West generally, as shown by the United Kingdom’s parliamentary vote against participating in any intervention. For almost everyone, George W. Bush’s “decisiveness” made vacillation seem like a better option.

Against this background, consider what Obama has achieved. A descent into chemical-weapons hell has been averted, almost certainly permanently: the Assad regime knows that it has no friends or protectors left should it cross that red line again. Military intervention, with all of its problems, has been avoided for now; but Assad knows that the US will have no option but to attack – with or without explicit Security Council and Congressional resolutions – should he perpetrate another such horror.

Above all, diplomatic cooperation on chemical weapons has opened the door at last to a negotiated settlement of the underlying conflict in Syria. And the UN is back at center stage, as a rules-based international order demands that it should be on such issues, with both its weapons inspectors and the Security Council regarded as central to future developments.

Yes, there were some things that could and should have been done differently. There always are. If the justified intervention in Libya by the US, the UK, and France had not later been conducted with such cloth-eared indifference to Russian, Chinese, and developing-country concern about mandate overreach, greater unity on Syria could have been achieved in the Security Council in 2011, when a united message might have stopped Assad cold.

Going to Congress for approval was always going to involve more risks than rewards. Secretary of State John Kerry’s description of the planned US military response to the Ghouta massacre as likely to be “unbelievably small” almost derailed the utility of the US threat in concentrating Syrian and Russian officials’ minds. And the administration could have helped itself by better explaining that a cooperative response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons had long been on the table, and was not just the result of deftly opportunistic Russian diplomacy in response to a Kerry thought-bubble.

What has trumped these missteps, and enabled each side to focus on opportunities rather than excuses, is that both the US and Russia now understand that they have common interests in Syria. Both sides want not only to preclude the Assad regime’s further use of chemical weapons, but also to find a route to sustainable peace in Syria, and to reestablish the authority and utility of the UN in these situations.

Of course, optimism must be tempered. Plenty can go wrong in the period ahead. Either a beleaguered Assad or an increasingly desperate opposition might destroy the deal on the ground. The fragile rapprochement between the US and Russia may not hold, particularly if the US again insists – breaking its recent helpful silence – that Assad has no place at the negotiating table.

But when the major powers cooperate in a just cause, the world is a safer and saner place. That is where both the US and Russia – and on this issue China as well – want to be. If Obama’s caution and flexibility have been the key to getting us here, let us give praise where it is due.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013. www.project-syndicate.org

This article is available online at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/why-obama-deserves-praise-for-the-syria-deal-by-gareth-evans