If this deal goes through, two things are clear. First, for now at least, using chemical weapons worked for Assad. The Russia-US deal that the WH wants to spin as a win contains no mention of Assad leaving power, much less facing international justice for a massacre involving chemical weapons. The precedent is now set that, if it has Russia’s support at the UN, a rogue regime can gas its own people and emerge in a stronger diplomatic position. Unless something changes this new status quo, the use of chemical weapons in a civil war is no longer a grave crime against humanity. It is more of a violation, like a speeding ticket. Assad has some points on his license, but he’s still at the wheel of his car.
Second, the deal a weakened Kerry accepted as the best he could get under the circumstances confirms the loss of prestige for Obama in the Middle East— again, for now. Assad must go, said Obama. Assad must not gas, said Obama. Assad has gassed and he will not go. This is big. The White House wants everyone to focus on the prospects for getting Syria’s chemical weapons under control, but this effort to distract attention from a diplomatic climbdown won’t work with the hard eyed realists who calculate power realities in the Middle East — and in Beijing and Pyongyang, for that matter. If the WH had forced a comparably humiliating step down on Putin’s part, the MSM would be full of hosannas and alleluias to the wisdom and greatness of the brilliance of US diplomacy. Andrew Sullivan’s joy would truly know no bounds—evil gay-bashing dictator humiliated by the gay-friendly, now fully evolved Obama.
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.