The Tally

From Putin to pundits, here are the 10 winners and losers of the U.S.-Russian deal on Syria’s chemical weapons.

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.

(2) Putin

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.

(3) Assad (with an asterisk)

The man without a country could also become a man without his chemical weapons. Yet implementing the chemical weapons arrangement will require keeping Assad in power. For now, that's a win for Syria's president -- as is avoiding a military strike -- even if he loses a strategic asset.

Nonetheless, Assad's two main allies (Russia and Iran) can't be entirely happy about how this whole affair transpired on the Syrian side. Neither the Russians nor the Americans accepted Assad's preconditions for moving forward on the chemical weapons proposal. And, whether or not he authorized the August 21 attack, he looks reckless, incompetent, or weak.

Then, there is the consideration of how this affects Assad's relationship with Russia. Moscow has billions invested in contracts, debt, prospects of future business, and a naval base in Syria, all of which have Assad's name on them. If he goes, they all go, too. And Assad can't be certain where Moscow is going or what kind of future deal Putin might be tempted to strike with the Americans.

(4) Obama -- and John Kerry, too (with an asterisk)

In the wake of this deal, will the president and his activist secretary of state be viewed as strategic geniuses, exquisite masters of the calibration of force and diplomacy? I don't think so. It's too late for that. Too many twists and turns, ups and downs, false starts and stops, and inconsistencies in language and tactics. But there's no doubt that the two are looking much better now than they have since the crisis began. After all, it was the president's willingness (however reluctantly) to put force on the table and his pivot to Congress (however weak it made him appear, particularly when he didn't have the votes) that opened up the space for Putin's seizing on an idea that had been raised before.

Let's also remember that the Syrian crisis has been a dog's lunch for the president from the get-go. Until now, Obama had three options on Syria, all of them bad: do nothing in the face of the largest single use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds; develop a comprehensive military strategy, including arming the rebels with serious weapons; or take the middle road of a limited strike. Now, the president has a fourth option: avoid military action and maybe get Assad's chemical weapons offline, weaken him, and perhaps, in cooperation with the Russians, initiate a broader process to end the civil war.

What's more, even if the follow-up proves fantastical, the new framework will be welcomed by the American public and by Congress, more so than a limited strike. If the administration doesn't try to oversell the deal or portray themselves as a bunch of Talleyrands, Gladstones, and Metternichs, it could get out of this crisis without any more damage to its image -- which has suffered from the Keystone Cops-style handling of the situation -- and with a fair share of the credit, too.

(5) Iran

For Iran, a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis is far preferable to a military strike. Whether or not congressional opposition to U.S. military action in Syria will encourage Iran to believe that Obama won't act against its nuclear program is impossible to say. But Tehran -- which is no fan of chemical weapons, given Iraq's use of gas against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war -- has done much to preserve the military balance on the ground in Assad's favor. A political deal keeps their man in Damascus in power. Also, like the Russians, Iran probably fears the impact of repeated strikes. Once the glass ceiling on military action is broken, the pressure, and even expectations, for U.S. action might rise. For now, that's no longer a concern.

(6) Israel (with an asterisk)

A diplomatic solution on chemical weapons carries mixed results for the Israelis. Putting Assad's chemical weapons stocks under international control means he can't use them, and the danger of these weapons falling into Hezbollah or jihadist hands will be reduced. Also, there's the long-game consideration that perhaps putting chemical weapons under international control could translate into the same being done to the highly enriched uranium needed for Iran's bomb.

But many Israelis and much of the country's security establishment have reason to be less than sanguine. First, on the Iran piece, additional questions about options abound: Did Obama's willingness to forego military action signal to Iranians that he is unwilling to use force against their nuclear assets should they push to weaponize? Does America's deep aversion to using force against Syria mean that, a year from now, neither Congress nor the public would consider and support action against Iran, too? When America appears weak, it's almost axiomatic that many Israelis see their own hand weakened, too. At the same time, the Israelis would appear to favor an outcome to the civil war in which neither Assad nor the opposition -- certainly not its Sunni extremist elements -- triumph. A political solution to the chemical weapons problem strengthens the likelihood of that outcome.

(7) The Commentariat

What a field day for talking heads, pundits, and the chattering classes, including yours truly, who focus on the Middle East. And it will continue for the remainder of the Obama administration. Next stop, Iran, then perhaps back to Egypt. And don't forget leaving Afghanistan or the evergreen pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. It reminds me of a conversation I had with former Secretary of State James Baker who, after I showed him a cable that he needed to sign authorizing our ambassador in Tunis to suspend U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1990, quipped, "Aaron, in my next life I want to be a Middle Eastern analyst just like you because I know I'll be guaranteed a permanent source of employment."


(1) The Syrian Opposition

For the moderate Islamist opposition, putting Assad's chemical weapons out of use must be good news. But those fighting Assad probably hoped that a U.S. military strike would accomplish that goal while also beginning the process of weakening the Syrian president's military capacity. It's no surprise, then, that the head of the Syrian Military Council has already denounced the new U.S.-Russian framework.

A political deal with the Russians puts to rest any hope that the Obama administration will soon ride to the opposition's rescue and raises again the painful reality that factions must overcome their divisions if the next step in the peace process is an effort to reconvene the Geneva process. All of this also maintains among the opposition the very real fear that Assad is not only the problem -- he may increasingly be viewed as part of the solution, too.

For the opposition, diplomacy should only have one outcome: Assad leaving and being held responsible for his crimes. But that just isn't in the cards.

(2) The Saudis and the Gulf

The other clear losers here are the Saudis and Qataris, who have invested heavily in backing the opposition through a determined proxy war. For them, this is sectarian struggle that pits the Shiite forces of darkness against the forces of light: their version of Sunni Islam. The failure of the United States to strike Assad and, by implication, weaken his Iranian patrons clearly isn't good news. Putting Putin in the driver's seat at the U.N. Security Council, where he can help ensure Assad's survival, is a problem, too. Paradoxically, like the Israelis, the Saudis in particular are concerned that this will constrain Obama from dealing forcefully with the Iranian nuclear issue when the time comes. (This outcome will only encourage the Saudis to intensify their support for the opposition.)

WITH SO MANY putative winners, it's no wonder this deal came together. It's clearly not perfect for anyone, but there appears to be enough "there there" to give this enterprise a chance to work -- as long as nobody expects too much and Assad doesn't overplay his hand by nickel-and-diming implementation. Indeed, the key to this deal is reasonable expectations. As with the rest of this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region, think about outcomes not solutions, transactions not transformations. You'll sleep better at night.


Reality Check

Can Obama Afford Not to Bomb Syria?

The White House seems to be confusing the least bad option with a strategic necessity.

Last week, I wrote that if President Obama didn't bomb Syria, you might as well hang a "Closed for the season" sign on his credibility -- and America's -- for the remainder of his second term.

Administration officials have been even more forceful. Indeed, if you listen to some members of the administration's national security team -- notably the eloquent and forceful secretary of state, John Kerry -- you might conclude that Syria has become the fulcrum of Western civilization and that failure to act will bring the barbarians to the gates.

But how strong is the administration's case? How damaging would a failure to act really be on U.S. influence and interests?

That's pretty tough to game out. But before Congress votes on whether to authorize the president to use force, let's try.

The proponents of military action base their arguments on four core assumptions.

1. Iran will be emboldened: Proponents of military action argue that failure to strike Syria for violating the president's red line on chemical weapons will encourage Iran to violate the American red line on nuclear weapons. Show U.S. weakness on one prohibition, and America's lack of resolve will be assumed on the other, too.

I understand the connection, particularly if Congress tortures itself to death and doesn't grant the president authorization to use force, or if one house does and the other doesn't.

But is failure to act against Syria really the key or even a key variable in Iran's nuclear program? You could argue that striking Assad might accelerate Iran's search for a nuclear weapon. And should Assad be truly weakened or fall, Tehran could feel encircled by a Western-Sunni arc and seek the protection of a nuclear deterrent.

For Iran, the nuclear issue is an enduring one. Had the shah not been overthrown in 1979, Iran would likely already be a nuclear power. The mullahs' calculations about the bomb -- yes or no, why or why not, today or tomorrow -- involve issues much broader than whether the United States launches cruise missile strikes against Syria for using chemicals. The economic, social, and political cost of sanctions, the incentives the United States is prepared to provide as part of a negotiated deal, and of course the likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran are far more determinative.

But wouldn't Obama's failure to use military force against Syria mean he'd be less likely to act against Iran? I'm not sure that logic really applies, or that Tehran would automatically accept it, either.

The dithering, indecision, and angst over Syria reflect the reality that attacking Assad really isn't a vital U.S. interest. If it were, and if it were perceived that way, it's likely the president would have acted without going to Congress, and the current debate wouldn't be as muddled.

By contrast, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been the policy of three American administrations. The factors that would impel a U.S. president to attack Iran would be fundamentally different, as would the domestic and international environments in which a debate about the use of force would be conducted -- particularly if the administration tried serious diplomacy first and laid out the case effectively. The idea that if you respond forcefully to less egregious criminal acts, you can prevent more serious crimes -- the "broken-windows" approach -- may apply to cities, but it isn't necessarily germane to deterrence in the Middle East, particularly when you have two different perpetrators.

2. Assad will be emboldened, too: Proponents of military action maintain that failure to use force will strengthen the regime and persuade Assad that he can act with impunity.

This is a stronger argument. There's no doubt that Assad will be emboldened and much of the opposition demoralized if the Obama administration fails to act. But -- putting aside for a moment the question of how destructive a U.S. strike might be -- would failure to act raise the odds significantly that Assad would deploy chemical weapons again? Alternatively, could striking really guarantee Syria would never use them again?

Cleary, we cannot be sure. Those in favor of military action, however, seem all but convinced that, although striking cannot ensure a stop to chemical weapons attacks, not acting will virtually guarantee that Assad will use such weapons more routinely. The administration believes this is one of its most compelling arguments -- that if the international community doesn't act, it will establish a horrible new norm whereby dictators have a green light to use chemical weapons -- but it is an extremely difficult proposition to prove. And there's more than a little hypocrisy on the part of the United States given its own acquiescence in -- even support for -- Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Iranians.

I take and accept the general point that, while you can't stop war, you want to make it a little less barbarous and that enforcing international norms against the use of chemical weapons would help do that. But would it deter Assad? Maybe for now. But Assad and his murderous cohort are fighting for their survival, and if pressed, they will deploy chemical weapons again and again. Given the virtual certainty that the Syrian conflict will persist with many more regime and rebel ups and downs, a "one and we're done" set of strikes almost certainly cannot dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that a limited strike will forestall Dictator X or Y from using chemicals in the future, particularly if the U.S. action doesn't truly hurt the Assad regime.

3. Israel will be weakened: American supporters of military action against Syria -- and many Israelis, too -- take the position that failure to act will weaken the United States and thereby undermine Israel's security as well. This is presumably why AIPAC has been so active in supporting the administration's case on Capitol Hill.

There is some logic to the notion that when the United States appears ineffective and weak in the region, so does Israel. And that deterring bad guys in the Middle East is a critical component of both countries' policies.

But Israel is hardly a potted plant. It has demonstrated a consistent capacity to act even when the United States won't (see Iraq, 1981; Syria 2007, 2013). By now it should be pretty clear that, when it comes to security matters, the Israelis are pretty good at attending to their own business. They don't have a stake in seeing Assad or the opposition triumph in a definitive way, and they will continue to enforce their own red lines -- e.g., maintaining quiet in the Golan Heights and blocking weapons transfers to Hezbollah and other unfriendlies -- while the Syrian civil war continues. So I don't find the argument that U.S. inaction on Syria fundamentally weakens Israel all that compelling.

It is, however, a stunning demonstration of Israel's centrality in congressional debate that critics of U.S. military action contend the country might be harmed by a strike on Syria and that supporters argue a failure to strike would hurt its interests.

4. Failure to act will undermine U.S. credibility: Absent a strike against Syria, supporters of military action argue, U.S. credibility will be badly damaged.

There's a legitimate fear here, related to the gap between words and deeds, rhetoric and action. Presidents should say what they mean and mean what they say. Indeed, credibility really means believability, and when friends and foes don't believe a president's commitment, bad things can happen.

But we know that presidents don't always mean what they say, let alone act on their words. When Barack Obama calls for a settlements freeze, proclaims Assad must go, or promises consequences if the Chinese and the Russians don't cooperate on Edward Snowden and nothing happens, it hurts American street cred. And these days, most everyone says "no" to the United States without much cost or consequence. In other words, U.S. credibility is already very low. An attack without a strategic underpinning won't make it much better.

Still, the United States isn't doing all that badly in protecting its core interests in the challenging, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East. We're out of Iraq and getting out of Afghanistan; we're reducing our dependence on Arab hydrocarbons; we've prevented another major attack on the United States; and we're managing the U.S.-Israeli relationship. John Kerry has even managed to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (and by the degree of radio silence attending the talks, he may even be making progress). And everyone's favorite Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, is making the right noises about a more moderate course.

The fact is that, given the odds against success in this region, we're not doing badly on tangible and concrete things, even as we're not doing that well on the more amorphous matter of our credibility. Credibility can be a much overrated commodity, particularly if its pursuit leads to actions that make matters worse, or if it becomes a substitute for clear and realizable goals.

The real problem

Let's face it. Obama's in a real box. He's got bad options on Syria, he doesn't have a lot of support, and he faces the very real prospect that this situation won't end happily for him. Even the least bad option -- the one that falls in the middle between not acting and acting too expansively -- is a dog's lunch. A limited military strike -- even one that falls on the tougher end of the limited continuum -- isn't likely to have much of an impact. And that raises the very real possibility that not acting won't make all that much difference.

Having supported the president's willful and wise decision to avoid militarizing the U.S. role in Syria for the past two years, I find myself struggling with bad options now. Doing nothing is unacceptable in the face of the largest single deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam gassed the Kurds; doing everything to change the battlefield balance is reckless and will ensure too much ownership of a Syrian problem we can't fix. And that leaves the muddle in the middle.

If I were in government -- a land where "doing something" is a built-in part of the job description -- I'd be tempted to go with the limited strike option.

But I have no illusions. When you're selling the least bad option as a strategic and consequential move, you know you have a problem. The international community knows that the kind of military action the United States is contemplating is no solution and could make matters worse; the American people know it; much of Congress knows it; and I suspect Barack Obama knows it, too. If the president ends up acting militarily against Syria, he knows that, more than likely, it will make a point rather than a significant difference. And when U.S. military power is deployed and American lives put in harm's way, that is never a good outcome.