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.
When a war does not have a defined objective that can be equated with victory, it is easy to fudge its definition of defeat. This is the case in Afghanistan.
The US' "peace with honor" in Vietnam was, by any measure, a defeat. The Vietnamese won their unified state and the US won nothing. In Iraq, also, continued waves of terrorism and a slide back into civil war was not by any measure a success, Saddam Hussein's death notwithstanding.
Now the US is proposing peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai also saying he is looking forward to negotiating with his "brothers". Whether or not there a "peace agreement" is negotiated, Afghanistan’s future is only as certain as the allied withdrawal scheduled for December next year.
Foreign troops will depart, the Afghan National Army will collapse, and Afghanistan will revert at least for a while to a bloodier and more retributive version of what it was before the allied invasion. At least some Taliban will be out for vengeance, and there will be a continued commitment to assist their Islamist brothers, be they al-Qaeda, any one of a dozen of Pakistan’s domestic Islamist terrorist groups or more than 30 Pakistani trans-national terrorist organisations.
For himself, Karzai will not remain long. No matter what assurances he might receive before the allied withdrawal, he is seen as an illegitimate, deeply corrupt and fairly brutal US puppet, which is a broad but not inaccurate summation of his political qualities.
When the Soviet Union left the "bear trap" of Afghanistan in 1989, its puppet, president Mohammad Najibullah, clung to power for three years of civil war before hiding in the UN mission headquarters for a further four years. After winning the civil war, the Taliban took Najibullah from the UN, castrated him and then dragged him behind a truck through the streets, finally hanging his corpse from a lamp post.
Najibullah also tried a process of "reconciliation". But Karzai will be keenly aware of Najibullah’s fate, and his travel agent will be lining up many departure options.
With the date of the allied withdrawal so public, the Taliban has in effect already won. It is just waiting for the clock to tick over.
As with the Soviet Union and Najibullah, the US will support the Karzai regime, at least for a while. But that assumes Afghanistan’s soldiers don’t immediately desert in the face of the obvious. At best, those identified as the Taliban’s enemies will be hoping to be able to make good an escape before the door slams shut.
Of those who do manage to flee, more than a few will end up as "irregular arrivals" in Australia. One wonders if the new minister for immigration will still be using the line that they should not be seeking asylum as there is no more war in their country, which is used for some Iraqi and Sri Lankan refugees.
For the architects of the Afganistan war, however, the withdrawal will be cloaked in something akin to "peace with honour". They will know, however, that regardless of what agreements might or, more likely might not, be reached with the Taliban, there will be no peace in Afghanistan until one side -- undoubtedly the Taliban -- has again cemented its rule over the country. There will be no "honour" in any of it.
But by then, the West’s regional security concerns in that part of the world will have locked onto Pakistan. Afghanistan is so last year; Pakistan is the focus of longer-term strategic planning.
The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war serves as a unique opportunity to measure the costs of the intervention, to assess the successes and failures of the goals of the war and to assess Australia’s obligations.
Let’s start with the costs. According to official figures, 4486 US military and 319 other coalition troops died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which cost US taxpayers $806 billion. No reliable public estimate exists on how much the war cost the Australian taxpayer. In Iraq the cost was much higher. Although estimates vary on the exact figures, approximately 162,000 Iraqis have died and an untold number injured. The war has also resulted in around 1.24 million internally displaced people and 1.6 million refugees, and many people have migrated out of Iraq since 2003.
If you had to guess the number one spot for terrorism worldwide, what would you guess? Afghanistan?
According to a new document from the defence and security intelligence and analysis group IHS Janes, first prize for terrorist attacks belongs to Syria. Putting aside the pedantic untidiness of who the terrorists actually were, Syria certainly suffered a lot of grief over 2012, with 2670 attacks, more than 10 times the number of attacks in 2011. No aspect of the war there is going well.
There would be a reasonable expectation that, putting aside this definitional anomaly, Afghanistan would slot securely in at number two, given the war still rages there. But the number of terrorist attacks in Iraq has increased 10% to 2296 following the conclusion of the war.
As more than a few pundits have observed, if the war in Iraq was a success, you’d hate to see a failure. Coming second in motorcycle racing is referred to as being "first of the losers", which seems particularly apposite in this context.
In a recent conversation with a foreign affairs colleague who was a survivor of one of the Afghanistan attacks, I suggested that Pakistan was really the centre of the anti-Taliban war now, rather than Afghanistan. The terrorist attack figures in Pakistan bear that out, with 2206 attacks, also up around 10% on 2011. Pakistan is a seriously dangerous place, and not one to be visiting any time soon for a holiday.
Try as Afghanistan (or some people there) might, it did not make the podium, in part due to an overall decline in attacks, from 1821 to a much more modest 1313. One might assume that this reflects the success of the International Security Assistance Force strategy there and the ultimate defeat of the Taliban. Or one might be a little more realistic and assume that the Taliban is dropping the tempo of its attacks until after the ISAF withdraws next year, at which time it will return in full force.
India is a surprise inclusion at fifth place, with almost three times as many attacks as Somalia in sixth, just ahead of Israel, which also suffered an increased number of attacks, in seventh place. Israel only just outpaced Thailand, which comes close to averaging an attack a day. Almost all of these attacks are in the troubled Muslim south.
What the HIS Janes figures show is that, if there really is a "war on terrorism", it has not been particularly successful. Overwhelmingly, things got worse, globally, rather than better.
If there is a positive side to any of this, at least very few terrorist attacks occurred in developed Western countries, which is where we live. We are safe, so long as we are careful about where we travel, for the time being.