A deal with Russia on chemical weapons may be a "win" for President Obama but only in the narrowest sense. He managed to avoid a war he desperately did not want. But with the near-obsessive focus on chemical-weapons use, the core issues have been pushed to the side. These were always more or less the same -- a regime bent on killing and terrorizing its own people and a brutal civil war spilling over into the rest of the region, fanning sectarian strife and destabilizing Syria's neighbors.
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'tneed 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.
Assad and his Russian backers played on Obama's most evident weakness, exploiting his desire to find a way -- any way -- out of military action. There was a threat of military force, but it was a weak and not entirely credible one, and this has only been further confirmed by the events of the last few weeks. Assad is still in power, prosecuting his war. Before the "deal," Assad had to at least worry about the possibility of military intervention and modulate his daily kill rate accordingly.
Little--if anything--has been accomplished by this deal. Assad will continue to lead Syria, he and the Russians will drag out any process regarding the inspection and elimination of chemical weapons, and as Hamid points out, the Obama administration will have neither the will nor the backing to put the military option back on the table. The United States has seen itself drawn into a conflict in which it had no strategic interest whatsoever, and its diplomatic aims in that conflict have not been achieved. I am glad that there will be no war, but war should have been abjured with the pronouncement that at the end of the day, the United States had no dog in the Syrian fight. Instead, the Obama administration rushed headlong into the middle of a conflict, rashly threatened military action, realized only later that it did not want a war, signaled that realization to everyone else, and accepted a bad deal in order to avoid military conflict with the Assad regime. It is difficult to imagine a worse outcome.