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.
This, by the way, is another reason why it should have been obvious from the beginning that Putin wanted his proposed deal to work. If his goal was simply to humiliate Obama, he could have waited for the House of Representatives to vote down the authorization to use force. The fact is, no Russian leader, particularly an authoritarian ex-KGB man like Putin, could have believed for a moment that a foreign leader—especially a U.S. president—would back away from the threat of military action simply because the legislature opposed it. In this sense, Obama’s wavering rhetoric might have thrown Putin into a deeper panic, for Russian leaders have found unpredictable opponents to be at least as fearsome as strong ones.
And yet, Assad cannot help but come out of this deal weaker than before.