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.
US President Barack Obama has moved a step closer towards direct intervention in Syria with his statement that there is now evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. Obama has previously said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that, if crossed, would trigger US intervention.
However, Obama has said it is not yet absolutely clear who was responsible for the use of the chemical weapons, and that it is critical to clarify this point so as to ensure international support for US intervention. His caution reflects growing concern not just over Syria's mounting death toll but international opposition to intervention as well as the inexorable drawing in to the conflict of outside forces, in particular Lebanon’s heavily armed Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Both the Bashar al-Assad government and the Syrian opposition claim chemical weapons have been used in the conflict, as recently as last Sunday. This supports earlier Israeli claims chemical weapons were being used in the Syrian conflict. There has been a high level of reluctance to take such claims on face value, however, given the disrepute of similar claims that rationalised the start of the Iraq War. Even if it can be established who has used chemical weapons -- thought to be the nerve gas Sarin -- it is not yet clear what form intervention might take, much less the shape of international reactions to such an intervention.
With the US public weary over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is unlikely that the US would commit ground troops to Syria. A belligerent response from Syrian ally Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, are also factors against a ground intervention.
However, a bombing campaign and related air cover, as in Libya in 2011 and in Yugoslavia in 1999, have been shown to be effective in either changing the course of a ground war or compelling a government into submission. With the Assad regime only slowly losing ground in its now two-year-old civil war, such an intervention would be likely to tip the outcome against his government forces.
One factor complicating of any hastening of the fall of the Assad regime is that Syrian opposition forces are now deeply divided. The Free Syrian Army is supported by the US and its European allies, and the explicitly al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front is supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Although it wants the Assad regime to go, the US and its allies are deeply opposed to an Al Nusra takeover of Syria. A civil war between Al Nusra and the FSA is also seen as increasingly likely following the fall of the Assad regime.
On-ground intervention by Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, has led Al Nusra leaders to say that, following the fall of the Assad regime, Hezbollah's destruction will be the next priority. Contemplating a possible Al Nusra takeover in Syria and a widening of the war into Lebanon and possibly Iran, the US is focusing on how its increasingly likely intervention could shape Syria’s highly contentious future.
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".