The "framework agreement" reached over the weekend between United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (pictured) to identify and destroy chemical weapons in Syria is a positive step in a war to date characterised only by negatives. But it has created a series of new complications for the US.
Assuming that Syria’s Assad regime is not rapidly shifting its stockpile of chemical weapons to secure sites beyond its borders, Syria’s chemical weapons will be identified by the end of the week and, over coming months, retrieved -- in the middle of a vicious civil war -- and destroyed. Syria will also sign the convention against the use of chemical weapons, for what little that might be worth.
It is also standard -- if not formally acknowledged -- practice for the side giving up weapons to underestimate the weapons it has in order to keep some in reserve.
US President Barack Obama has been quick to say that a military response remains an option if President Bashar al-Assad's regime does not comply with the terms of the agreement. But the agreement specifies that if Syria does not comply, the matter will be referred to the UN Security Council.
With Russia’s veto power that is, of course, a dead-end. Following its recent indecision, a US response is possible, but far from definite.
The rebel Free Syrian Army is, unsurprisingly, furious about the agreement. As it correctly notes, in terms of the proportion of deaths, chemical weapons are not the issue. Conventional weapons have taken what is now estimated to be over 100,000 lives; chemical weapons perhaps a thousand or so.
The FSA wanted direct intervention in the hope of taking away the Assad regime’s advantage. But the US’ primary concern is being seen "to be doing something" while not becoming embroiled in another war it is very unlikely to come out of well.
In this respect, Obama faces the classic US post-war dilemma. Having engaged in unwinnable wars -- Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq II -- the US retreated to lick it wounds. The succeeding Democratic presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and now Obama – were more or less locked into an anti-intervention position, making them look weak on international issues. This, then, explains the tortured and sometimes confused rhetoric of both Obama and Kerry on the Syria issue, where they talk tough and then back off in alternating sentences. To reprise the Stephen Stills song, when "the eagle flies with the dove", it usually comes off badly for the dove.
What is not yet much acknowledged is that Russia has returned from being a struggling second-rate international power to again strutting the international stage as, more or less, the equal of the US. Kerry is no diplomatic slouch, but Lavros -- backed by the decisiveness of the bare-chested President Vladimir Putin, has put Russia at the centre of global negotiations.
In strategic terms, Russia remains very far behind the US, and it will not in the foreseeable future again challenge it -- that is now China’s job. But in diplomatic terms, with all the unburdening implied by the style, the US was played like a Russian violin.
As for the people of Syria, there has been very little change on the ground. The war continues, the Assad regime appears willing to fight to the last, and the anti-Assad forces remain profoundly divided between "moderates" recognised by the West and the al-Qaeda-aligned Syrian Islamic Front.
A final outcome remains very far away. But, should it materialise, it will probably be something like a US-Russia-backed alliance of the FSA and pro-Assad forces, if without Bashar as-Assad, opposing the SIF. This is the logic of "my enemy’s enemy is my friend".
Many observers now agree that the US intervention in Iraq should have removed Saddam Hussein but retained his Ba’athist regime in coalition with more moderate anti-Hussein elements. This would have produced the quickest and most stable outcome for Iraq, and avoided its subsequent civil war.
The last thing the US or Russia wants is for Syria to descend into a similarly interminable civil war. But, despite the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, it might be too late to avoid such an outcome.
If the United States intervenes in the Syrian civil war, as it is now considering doing after more than a year of refusing to become involved, it would mark a major shift but might not end the fighting.
The move towards intervention follows claims of President Bashar al-Assad’s government using of chemical weapons in the country’s stalemated civil war. If proven, the use of chemical weapons would constitute a war crime under international law. In response, the US has gathered a flotilla of ships in the area, capable of launching missile strikes against Syria.
The Assad regime has denied the use of chemical weapons. However, Medecins Sans Frontieres says more than 300 civilian dead and thousands more injured show symptoms of nerve gas poisoning.
US President Barack Obama has said establishing that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons would trigger a response. However, Russia will block international intervention in the UN Security Council. The US and its allies are, therefore, looking beyond the UN for a legal rationale for intervention.
The most likely international response will be through a coalition of countries, probably under the auspices of NATO. Such a justification would employ the language of "responsibility to protect". Syrian neighbour Turkey, a NATO member, is also likely to join the fray.
Obama had been deeply reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, as anti-Assad forces could lead a sectarian massacre. He is also concerned that radical Islamist fighters could establish a new base in the political vacuum, possibly assuming control of the state. Following the Iraq debacle, Obama will also be aware of the irony and possible deception of becoming involved in a war based on the presence of "weapons of mass destruction". And, perhaps most critically, Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, would not only be deeply angered by such intervention but could also become directly involved in the conflict.
With the battling factions being supported by external actors, Syria’s civil war has been, in part, a war by proxy. That proxy war would be extended, with likely greater Saudi support for radical Islamists and, almost inevitably, dragging in neighbouring Lebanon, which in the last few days has been the site of a sectarian bombing believed to have been triggered by the Syrian war.
These outcomes are being factored in to the increasingly likely US-led response. An intervention will probably begin with missile strikes, followed by air attacks and the open provision of weapons to anti-Assad forces. A missile attack would first neutralise the Assad regime’s anti-aircraft capacity, as well as target chemical weapons sites.
A US-led attack could, initially, tip the balance of the war against the Assad regime’s forces. But should this intervention trigger a reaction from the Assad regime’s external backers, the war in Syria is likely to become not just more bloody but perhaps not any closer to a final resolution.