Of course, Syria has not yet pledged to hand over its chemical weapons. If it does, it would truly be one of the happiest accidents of this entire episode. (Whatever the administration says about its threatened use of force, this outcome was unforeseen.) Never mind that the United States has no idea where Assad has squirreled away his chemical munitions. For now we will engage the likely fiction that Assad will self-disarm his most potent weapon for ensuring his future survival—the only thing a dictator craves—because it allows all sides to stand down. The argument will now turn to how credible the Russian plan truly is, whether any agreement can be backed by a future use of force, and whether Assad will comply.

If Putin’s maneuver doesn’t pan out, Obama’s foreign policy will still likely fall victim to the vicissitudes of a dictator. Because one message is already clear in Damascus: The Obama administration will do everything in its power to do nothing at all. If Assad finds himself up against the wall, he will likely gas his fellow Syrians again. Maybe he will reduce the scale and scope, but it is doubtful that he will abandon the weapons. How will President Obama respond then? It is hard to say. Because no one knows what the president is doing. At least he has the element of surprise.