The US has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred over Syria. First, the Commons vote induced Obama to seek a vote in Congress to shore up his authority to take military action against the background that US public opinion shared UK public opinion in resisting any further intervention in the Middle East. Then as uncertainty grew about the vote in the House of Representatives, he grasped eagerly at the lifeline thrown him by the Russian proposal that the Syrian chemical weapons sites be placed under international control. Now he is caught on a dilemma: the fear that the Russian-Syrian bloc will spin out Syria’s compliance with this plan, with his credibility ebbing away the longer it is delayed, against the risk that threatening military action to speed up compliance risks Russian withdrawal from support for the plan. In addition the US Administration is clearly divided about objectives: Kerry’s “what we are talking about is an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” grates sharply against Obama’s “the US military doesn’t do pinpricks”. This has become as much about Obama’s authority as about Assad’s criminality.
There are other problems too about the credibility of the US stance. Obama famously laid down his red lines on the use of chemical weapons. Yet the US itself used chemical weapons on a far greater scale in Vietnam. In the so-called Operation Hades the Senate reported in 1970 that the US “dumped on Vietnam a quantity of toxic chemical (dioxin) amounting to 6 lbs per head of population”. In Iraq, again, the US used depleted uranium and white phosphorus (as their allies, the Israelis, also did in Gaza), with no red lines drawn by any world policeman. A second problem, one of realpolitik, is that Russia now holds all the cards. A French draft resolution for the UN Security Council lays down a reasonably short timescale for Syria to bring its arsenal under the Chemical Weapons Convention and licenses the use of force if it does not. But that still requires the consent of Putin who has made clear he believes the threat of force should be withdrawn if Assad is to comply. Third, it is almost impossible to see how Syria’s arsenal could be decommissioned while a civil war is raging, yet Assad is not going to declare a ceasefire without guarantees about his own future and that of his regime.
There is still one other aspect which is wholly unaddressed by this latest pirouetting. Even if by some alchemy between the parties this latest diplomatic initiative is pulled off, does that mean that while Assad has forfeited his use of chemical weapons, he is still permitted to kill another 100,000 of his people so long as he sticks to conventional weapons? If not, how can he be stopped? The answer again comes back to Vladimir Putin, for there is no other way to stop Assad.