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.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's sudden willingness to put its chemical weapons under international -- i.e. Russian -- supervision might allow the regime to avoid a US attack while at the same time preserving its advantage in Syria's civil war. Despite tough rhetoric from the United States, if an agreement can be reached on the modalities of safeguarding the chemical weapons, the US can avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict while still, more or less, saving face.
President Barack Obama's delineation of the "red line" that would trigger intervention if crossed trapped the US into acting in Syria. Not to do so would have been a serious blow to the US’ pre-eminent standing in global affairs.
But to strike without UN Security Council approval would have drawn international opprobrium and likely have escalated involvement by Russia and Iran. The logic of intervention, too, would be to step up from "degrading" the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons and probably damaging its air power to damaging the regime’s wider capacity, allowing greater prospects for regime change.
At this stage, the US is not backing down on its internal discussions about attacking Assad's regime. But its rhetoric should now be read primarily as keeping up pressure on Russia to finally act to help moderate the conflict. Having Russia involved in Syria would help prevent the US from being drawn into a no-win situation. Should the US intervene, it will create four problems that do not currently exist.
The first problem is that any hope for detente with Russia would collapse, raise the spectre of opposition on a range of other global issues the US is trying to manage, including China’s strategic manoeuvring, a nuclear armed Iran, and a mad and bad North Korea. It would also damage the opportunity to work with Russia on the mutual concern with the spread of international jihadist Islamism.
The second problem is that any US intervention in Syria would turn a number of its Middle Eastern friends into critics, based not on their strategic alliances but on the "great unbeliever" again imposing its will on Islamic land. One should not underestimate the offence to Muslims caused by non-Islamic military involvement in Islamic countries.
The third problem is that if the Assad regime were to fall, Syria’s patchwork of over a dozen ethnic groups would descend into an ethnic cleansing bloodbath. The conflict would also almost certainly spill over into Lebanon and further destabilise Iraq and perhaps Jordan and would pose a greater threat to Israel.
The fourth problem is that while few like the Assad regime, everyone but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are much more concerned about the likely jihadist Islamist alternative. Should Assad be toppled, the Syrian Islamic Front -- a coalition of radical Salafi jihadist organisations linked to al-Qaeda -- would very likely defeat the alternative anti-Assad Free Syrian Army.
This would create a combative Islamist state in the heart of the Middle East. The US and Russia would be equally aghast at this eventually.
At least with Russia now offering to "safeguard" Syria’s chemical weapons -0 if with conditions - the possibility they will fall into the hands of a combative Islamist state would be removed. And the US may be able to avoid again setting itself up as Islam’s "great Satan".
Assuming it can obtain sufficient guarantees, the US will likely accept Russia’s offer. More than punish Assad, the US wants to preserve its credibility while extricating itself from a situation it has never wanted to be in and that, on balance, it knows will only get worse.
As the United States and its allies -- including Australia -- move closer to intervening in the Syrian civil war, more questions are emerging over the chemical weapons attack which is the pretext for that intervention. Challenging questions are being asked about the motive behind the attack, as well as the consequences of a response to it.
The US has been reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, yet drawn a "red line" which, if crossed, would trigger an intervention. The question now being asked is why Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would unnecessarily provoke the US into a response?
Assad knew that, once publicly committed, the US could not back down from its threat to intervene. For US President Barack Obama to make such a threat and then not carry it through would weaken its international status and prompt further possible tests of its strategic resolve.
The evidence, too, is that despite the huge cost in civilian lives, the Assad regime is at least holding its own in the civil war and has made recent gains. These gains have been largely due to logistical support from Russia, China and Iran, and the intervention of Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon.
This, then, begs the questions of why it would resort to using chemical weapons when there is no pressing need to do so, and especially knowing it would engender an external military response?
The Assad regime being evil is a morally satisfying but intellectually bereft answer to this question that does not transcend reasonable -- and growing -- doubt. It is certain that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that is the extent of the facts.
It is possible that the order for Assad regime forces to use its chemical weapons did not come from Assad himself. A rogue commander could have used the weapons, for reasons that can only be guessed at.
But looking at who has most to gain from such an attack, suspicion falls less on the Assad regime and more on the faltering anti-Assad rebellion. External intervention could, at least initially, tip the balance of power in Syria’s civil war in favour of the anti-Assad forces.
The Assad regime's reluctance and delay in allowing in UN weapons inspectors has not helped allay suspicion that the chemical weapons attach was a deliberate act. However, had a local commander given the order, Assad would have been aware of the likely consequences and thus attempted to delay formal investigations in order to allow signs of the chemicals to dissipate.
Of the two main opposition groupings, the more secular (and Western-supported) Free Syrian Army has struggled and has the most to gain from external intervention. The Saudi and Qatar-backed and Al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front and the Syrian Islamic Front, though, would also benefit from external intervention. If intervention helped topple the Assad regime, it would ease the way towards them establishing an Islamist state.
While there is no evidence that either of these two somewhat disparate groupings are responsible for the chemical attack, one is clearly desperate and the other has, during the civil war, demonstrated its own lack of moral compunction. The hard evidence, then, beyond the simple fact of an attack, remains ambiguous.
Apart from the formal legality of a direct external intervention, careful consideration is being given to how much evidence will be needed to launch a US-led attack. There appears little ulterior reason for the US to want to intervene in the Syrian civil war, given that it is only likely to further stir up the hornets’ nest.
The US is being drawn into the Syrian civil war in a seemingly mechanistic way. Yet there remains no hard evidence as to who was the perpetrator of the chemical attack. This level of uncertainty has echoes similar to that of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction", and the continuing disaster that remains what is left of the Iraqi state.
There was a moment of hope, a week ago, that there could yet be a negotiated resolution to the Syrian civil war. That hope now appears ended, with key Syrian government ally Russia backing away from what could have been international agreement on the need end the war.
Instead, the Syrian war is increasingly spilling across borders, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia openly siding with the Syrian government by joining in the attack on the town of Qusair, Syria shelling the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan in particular buckling under the weight of more than 400,000 refugees.
The Syrian government’s attack on Qusair, near the border with northern Lebanon, is reported to be the heaviest artillery assault of the war. Anti-Assad regime forces still hold the town but are struggling, and its loss will put further pressure on the nearby hold-out city of Homs, also the scene of heavy fighting between Syria’s opposing forces.
Should Qusair fall, it will open a route for the Syrian regime between Damascus in the south and the sea ports at Al Hamidiyah and the Russian-based Tartus. The heavy fighting follows President Bashar al-Assad taking a hard line on the possibility of ending the civil war in an interview last weekend.
The fighting also follows the reporting drying up of weapons supplies to the anti-Assad forces. The reduced flow of weapons is a result of increasing concerns that they could fall into the hands of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Brigade and aligned factions, as well as as result of reports of atrocities on the part of both pro and anti-Assad forces.
Assad has said he will not negotiate with "terrorists", meaning forces arrayed against his regime, and says he plans to stand for "re-election" in 2014. Assad’s statement came a day after the US criticised Russia for supplying rockets to Syrian government forces.
Russia’s supply of the rockets was in apparent contradiction of the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry early in May, to push for a Syria peace conference in June. One reading of Russia’s position is that it will support peace talks in June, but only if it can strengthen the hand of the Assad regime ahead of such negotiations.
At this stage, however, Assad is not indicating that he will participate. Anti-Assad forces, meanwhile, see his resignation as a key condition for the talks to succeed. France has also said it will boycott the talks if Assad ally Iran is invited to participate in the talks process, which Russia is insisting upon.
With the anti-Assad forces now clearly divided between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliates and Western support wavering, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are feeling increasingly confident of turning the tide in the war. It may be, however, that this is but another twist in an increasingly complicated, bitter and prolonged war.
The civil war in Syria looks to be entering a new and potentially more dangerous phase, with the alleged use of chemical weapons both escalating the conflict and making foreign intervention more likely. During his visit to Israel, US President Barack Obama said confirmation that chemical weapons had been used in Syria would be a "game changer".
Dozens of people have been reportedly killed in the city of Aleppo following what is believed to have been a gas attack. When news of the attack first broke, the Syrian government immediately blamed Syrian rebels for the use of chemical weapons. The rebels quickly denied responsibility, saying they had no access to such weapons and had no suitable weapons delivery systems. Obama said he was sceptical of the Syrian government's claim that the chemical weapons had been used by the rebels.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an investigation into the use of the gas as a weapon in Syria. Obama said: "When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking at potentially even more horrific scenes than we've already seen in Syria."
Obama is now under increasing domestic pressure from both sides of US politics to intervene in the Syrian conflict. He has so far avoided intervention in the hope the war would be resolved through negotiation; however, he said the use of chemical weapons could trigger intervention.
The UK has already started to supply gas masks to Syria’s rebel fighters, along with other humanitarian aid.
If the US intervenes, it is expected to be under the rubric of the "Responsibility to Protect" policy (R2P). Under R2P, states have a responsibility to intervene in domestic conflicts when a government cannot protect its people from, or engages in, war crimes, crimes against humanity or other mass human rights abuses. There are several levels of invoking R2P, only the last of which is military intervention. Ordinarily, R2P requires the approval of the UN Security Council. However, Russia and China have both made clear they will not allow the Security Council to invoke R2P on this issue.
Obama is highly unlikely to opt for unilateral on-ground military intervention, given the US is still assessing the cost of being bogged down in Iraq and then Afghanistan. However, there is some possibility he could authorise selective air strikes against chemical weapons sights and related targets, or reach agreement with other NATO states to allow such strikes.
This would probably be less than NATO's barrage of air strikes in Kosovo in 1999, which ended Serbian occupation, and probably less than the air support for anti-Muammar Gaddafi forces in Libya in 2011. In particular, the US would be particularly concerned not to provoke Russia into also intervening, thus turning the Syrian civil war into a war by proxy between major powers.
The US is also concerned to eliminate chemical weapons from a post-Bashar al-Assad strategic equation. It fears if the Assad regime falls, weapons could fall into the hands of the radical Islamist groups that are carrying much of the anti-Assad effort. This, too, may prompt the use of air strikes.
Along with other Western states, the US wants to see an end to the Syrian conflict. But few want to see the rise of a militant Islamist state, especially one that demonstrably has access to "weapons of mass destruction".