There is a fair amount in the recently concluded U.S.-Russian framework agreement on Syria's chemical weapons that could belong in the domain of the tooth fairy. But should the accord be implemented, it would validate Woody Allen's philosophy about life, slightly amended and applied to diplomacy: Success isn't just about showing up, it's showing up at the right time.
All the chatter about how the Obama administration could have interceded earlier in a more robust way -- arming and training the opposition, creating no-fly zones -- and produced a substantially different outcome remains just that. Saying that the president's aversion to doing more created a self-fulfilling prophecy of lost opportunities, needless human misery, and gains for the bad guys misses a fundamental point.
If -- and it's still a galactic if -- the new framework offers a real political way out of this emergency, it will be because a unique set of circumstances combined to produce enough urgency and ownership to do so. The Syrians created a crisis by using chemical weapons in a massive attack on August 21, President Barack Obama threatened force but then vacillated, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, recognizing both Obama's strengths and his weaknesses, stepped up, grabbed center stage, and inserted himself directly into a process he'd long avoided. It shows that the right combination of pain and gain is what creates openings and drives big decisions.
Assuming for now that the peace train may have indeed left the station, who benefits? Here's a short take on the winners and losers. Or, perhaps more to the point, in a region where such designations are rarely clear, here's a look at who gains and who loses.
(1) Common Sense and Rational Thinking
Even under the best of circumstances, a limited military strike against Syria was always a very uncertain option. It carried risks without the prospect of real rewards. That a strike would have bucked up U.S. credibility and somehow retarded Iran's nuclear ambitions or regional influence is by no means clear. Even had a limited strike been of a more robust character, it might not have ended Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons or shifted the balance of the battlefield.
Now, it's more likely than before that Assad won't use chemical weapons again, because the political and diplomatic spotlight is focused squarely on the issue. Simply put, then, a deal to take Assad's chemical weapons offline has already proved far preferable to a military strike and the prospects of greater U.S. involvement in a civil war it cannot possibly end through military means.
Talk about timing. Putin, like George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, "seen his opportunities and took 'em," emerging as the Syrian crisis's deus ex machina.
He has already achieved his minimal objectives: The chemical weapons wildcard that triggered the crisis and perhaps threatened Assad's tenure is being dealt with. Obama won't strike unilaterally, and there will be no U.S.-orchestrated regime change (see: Iraq and Libya). And, with the U.N. Security Council now a formal part of the disarmament process and the Russians with a veto, Moscow has a good deal of influence to block what it doesn't like.
Moreover, Putin is now seen as a dominant and potentially positive force on the international stage. If the framework succeeds, he will have shown that the road to a solution can lie through Moscow. That will allow him to play with the next step here: a Geneva 2.0, so to speak, that can either keep Assad afloat or help ease him out if Russians interests demand it.