Syria’s Minister for National Reconciliation said on Sunday that the chemical weapons agreement between Russia and the United States was a “victory” for Damascus, won by its Russian allies, and had taken away the pretext for war…

“This agreement, an achievement of Russian diplomats and the Russian leadership, is a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends,” Ali Haidar told Russian news agency RIA.

“We welcome this agreement. From one point of view, it will help Syrians exit the crisis, from another, it has prevented a war against Syria, having taken away the pretext for one from those who wanted to unleash (it),” he said.

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“I’m less concerned about style points. I’m much more concerned with getting the policy right,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview on “This Week.”…

The president said a “verifiable agreement” to disarm Assad of his chemical stockpiles will go further than any U.S. military strikes could have in eliminating the threat of their use.

“If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right,” Obama said…

“I welcome [Putin] being involved. I welcome him saying, ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons,’” he said. “This is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia.”

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For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than “punished” as originally planned. He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return. Obscured in the debate of the past few weeks is that chemical weapons were never central to the Syrian regime’s military strategy. It doesn’t need to use chemical weapons. In other words, even if the regime does comply with inspections (which could drag on for months if not years), it will have little import for the broader civil war, which Assad remains intent on winning.

If anything, Assad finds himself in a stronger position. Now, he can get away with nearly anything — as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons, which, unlike the chemical kind, are responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 deaths so far in the civil war. Let’s say Assad intensifies the bombardment of villages and cities using aircraft and artillery. What if there are more summary executions, more indiscriminate slaughter? What we have already seen is terrible, of course, but it is not the worst Assad can do with conventional weapons…

To the extent that other strongmen are watching this sorry episode and using it to decide whether to use chemical weapons — a somewhat dubious proposition to start with — they are likely to learn a rather different lesson: It may have very well worked for Assad, so why can’t it work for us?

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At the same time, Obama can cite his threat to use force as the reason Putin suddenly swung into action (this might even be true, to some extent). He can thus take at least joint credit for ridding Syria of chemical weapons and upholding international law. And he is saved from having to make good on letting Congress vote on whether to authorize the use of force—a vote that he seemed all but certain to lose. A win-win-win for Obama.

The only losers in this diplomatic venture are the Syrians. They’re stuck with Assad, and the civil war rages on. But this is how things were before the sarin strike of Aug. 21, which pushed Obama across a red line he didn’t want to cross all by himself—and then pushed him into a compounding crisis of his own making when it became clear that no other institution (not the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, or the U.S. Congress) wanted to cross with him…

And yet, Assad cannot help but come out of this deal weaker than before. First, he has had to admit that he has chemical weapons—and in fact to lead foreign inspectors to their sites—after earlier denying that he had any. (The sign of weakness here isn’t the admission of a lie but the necessity to come clean.) Second, he has had to submit to a deal struck by two outside powers; he can no longer present himself—to his people, his enemies, or perhaps most fatefully, to his military officers—as a strong, independent ruler. He appears to be, instead, Putin’s lackey and perhaps even Obama’s manservant.

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The Kremlin needed this breakthrough, not just to improve the prospects for peace in the Middle East but to bolster its international standing, which explains why President Vladimir Putin’s government apparently pressed the Syrians hard for a deal, Alexander Golts, deputy editor in chief of the liberal online publication Yezhednevny Zhurnal said…

“While Putin and Obama are both enjoying the moment of getting each of them out of a difficult situation, Assad should also feel grateful for getting a lot of time to find a way to get rid of the rebels without U.S. missiles falling on his head,” Golts said. “It may take a significant time between Assad giving out the location of his chemical weapons bases, and there may be as many as 60 of them, to the actual deployment of thousands of international experts and troops to protect them let alone utilize or destroy.”

“All Assad needs now is time,” he added. “So Assad is the ultimate winner.”

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“You have a very limited time to do as much as you can with maximum political support,” said David A. Kay, who led major efforts in the 1990s to find and destroy Iraq’s unconventional arms. “The political support will start to erode. The people you’re inspecting will get tired. So you want to do as much as you can, as quickly as you can.”…

“We don’t want to create another chemical weapons disaster; Syria has already had several,” said one senior administration official who has knowledge of the meetings over how to separate Mr. Assad from the arsenal that he and his father have built up over the past three decades. He insisted on anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations. But if Mr. Assad does not put on “a big, demonstrable show” to prove to the Syrian military that he is “giving up the crown jewels,” the official said, “this isn’t going to work.”

Robert Joseph, a former top national security official under President George W. Bush who helped create the requirements for Libya when it gave up its nuclear program and chemical stockpiles, said Libya complied because “the Libyan leadership believed that it would be attacked” if it did not abandon its program.

“I doubt Assad has that worry now,” he said, though White House officials insist that President Obama’s declaration that he is keeping military forces in the Mediterranean on alert sends that message.

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Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican and a defense hawk who’s called for more forceful action in Syria, said the agreement went soft on Syrian President Bashar Assad despite tough talk from President Obama in the wake of an Aug. 21 chemical attack on civilians near Damascus.

“And by the way, they didn’t even assign blame for this attack,” Mr. McCain told NBC’s ” Meet the Press.” “In fact, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in his op-ed piece — a stirring piece — said that it was the rebels, it was the Free Syrian Army that committed this. There is not a seriousness on the part of the Russians.”…

I think it’s a loser, because I think it gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven’t had since 1970,” he told NBC. “We are now depending on the good will of the Russian people if Bashar Assad violates this agreement. And I am of the firm belief, given his record, that is a very, very big gamble.”

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But this defeat is not irreversible, if US policy is still to get rid of Assad. Whether from internal dissension within the regime, pressure from rebels, or a combination of both, Assad can still go down. That would turn a diplomatic defeat into a real world win. Obama would make his point, and Putin would be left playing air guitar…

So if the administration still believes that US interests would be served by the overthrow of an inept and brutal dictator who has violated one of the most fundamental taboos in international life and who is strategically linked with America’s most dangerous opponent in the Middle East, then the road forward is clear. Under cover of the deal with Russia, the US administration will encourage and perhaps, from far in the rear and in relatively quiet ways, assist the Saudis and others who see the overthrow of Assad as the next step in the process of containing Iran…

So far, playing for time on Syria has just made things worse, but who knows? Tomorrow is another day. We shall see.

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But the second prong of the Putin doctrine (or ultimatum) may be more urgent in practical terms, as these “negotiations” wend their way through a succession of global meeting places. To say that we “must return to the path of diplomatic and political settlement” means that we must reach a new carve-up. The Cold War pact with East and West having their mutually agreed spheres of influence may not stand any longer, but a new deal will have to be done. The old imperial Russia, without even the ideological gloss of communism, is on the march. It isn’t about defeating the evils of capitalism any more: Russia is now in a robber-baron stage of capitalist development that would make 21st-century Americans blanch. No, it’s just about territory and geopolitical clout. (Maybe that’s what it was always about – even in the Soviet era.)

Significantly, Mr Putin’s most notable target has been American exceptionalism. But he has proceeded to lay claim to precisely the idea on which that exceptionalism is based: although we are all different, he says,“God created us equal”. And by saying that, oddly enough, he acknowledges that the language of God-given universal rights is now the only acceptable currency of international relations. Did he really mean to do that? A lot could hinge on the answer.

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A Geneva peace summit on Syria is still being discussed. Several U.N. diplomats see the new developments as groundshifting and are waiting to hear from U.N. and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Referring to the ongoing civil war, Ban on Friday said that Assad “has committed many crimes against humanity.”

“This may be the beginning of a realization by Russia that a transition is in the cards,” a Security Council non-permanent-member diplomat said, “and, therefore, an international conference is a must.”

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By partnering with Russia and the West on the disarmament process, a process that is meant to last into 2014 (and most likely won’t be finished for years, even if it is carried out in good faith, which is a big “if”), Assad has made himself indispensable. A post-Assad regime wouldn’t necessarily be party to this agreement, and might not even go through the motions. Syria, post-Assad, might very well be more fractured and chaotic than it is now, which is to say, even less of an environment in which United Nations weapons inspectors could safely go about their work. The U.S. now needs Assad in place for the duration. He’s the guy, after all, whose lieutenants know where the chemical weapons are…

This plan probably won’t work. Assad is a lying, murdering terrorist, and lying, murdering terrorists aren’t, generally speaking, reliable partners, except for other lying, murdering terrorists. In any case, disarmament experts say that this process, properly carried out, would take years and years to accomplish, but of course they really don’t know how long this might take because no one has ever tried to locate and secure hundreds of tons of chemical weapons on an active battlefield, particularly one in which Hezbollah and al-Qaeda are vying for supremacy…

Who are the real losers in this episode? That one is easy. The Syrian people. They will continue to be raped, tortured and slaughtered in their homes, in their markets, on their streets, in their hospitals and in their mosques. So long as they die in conventional ways, no one will pay their deaths much mind at all.

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“Who cares? If it has a chance to get rid of chemical weapons, do we really care that Russia got the diplomatic edge?”