In October 2002, an unknown member of the Illinois State Senate spoke about the US war in Iraq. “I don’t oppose all wars,” he said. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war… A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
That speaker is now president of the United States. The Geneva agreement over the eradication of Syria’s chemical weapons exemplifies that Obama doctrine. It is a sophisticated and reasoned response to a problem that seems to have baffled all but the president since the Syrians launched chemical weapons against their own civilians on August 21. It does, though, leave all sides with their positions simultaneously improved and weakened.
For the US, the threat of military force seems to have been sufficient to cajole Syria and Russia into action. Given domestic concerns about writing a blank cheque for another war in the Middle East, that is good news for the already reticent administration.
While the very public withdrawal from military action — after the president warned that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” — may worry allies, predictions of a US retreat into isolationism appear premature.
Israel, for one, may prefer a diplomatic solution. While Israeli analysts had largely dismissed the threat of a Syrian assault, if attacked, Assad’s decisions in his final hours would be hard to predict. Removing this threat without a shot fired has been welcomed in Israel, although actions will count more than words. Israel will also hope that the deal on Syrian chemical weapons will send the right signal to Tehran, although there will be some concerns that threatening, and then stopping short of, military action will have had the opposite effect.
Within Syria, Assad’s decision to relinquish his chemical weapons buys him some international legitimacy, and more time to wage war on his own population. In any case, with Washington and Moscow in accord, this was an offer that he simply could not refuse.
Assad has lost his main threat against Israel but his priority is domestic. For the Syrian rebels, the deal is bad news. Their best hope is for increased Western military support, which appeared to be materialising this week with reports that the US was using back-channels to supply them with arms.
For Iran, the picture is less clear. Although military action was halted, Tehran has witnessed just how dramatic an effect US-Russian agreement can have on the affairs of the region.
US Secretary of State John Kerry described the Geneva deal as “setting the standard” for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. Tehran will hope not. As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin has improved his standing by both averting war and removing Syria’s chemical weapons, while maintaining support for his ally. He is, though, guarantor for a difficult process of decommissioning the chemical stockpiles in a war zone. There is also the hanging threat of US military action if progress is unsatisfactory.