16 September 2013
Who won the Syrian crisis?
For now, it looks like the U.S. won't be attacking Syria. The government and the UN are giving the Russians a chance to work out their plan, supposedly inspired by an offhand remark by Secretary Kerry, to have the Assad government turn over its chemical-weapon stockpiles, though Assad continues to deny that his side used chemical weapons in the attack that crossed President Obama's "red line." Because Assad isn't going to be attacked right away, he's declaring "victory" in a way guaranteed to infuriate some Americans. Some will be infuriated because the claim is ridiculous; others will be infuriated because they agree that any result that leaves Assad in power is victory for him and humiliating defeat for the U.S. Others still see the outcome as a victory for Russia, proof of President Putin's ability to influence events in the Middle East, where some think Russia should have no influence. If anything, the current deal would seem to prove that the Russians were ultimately more reluctant to fight for Assad than it may have seemed a little while ago. If the extreme Russian position was "don't mess with Assad and don't interfere with Syria, period," the chemical-weapons deal shows them backing down, to the extent that chemical weapons gave their guy Assad an advantage over the rebels -- though, again, the Russians dispute whether Assad used chemicals, while the UN will only confirm that Sarin gas was used on the occasion in question. Obama can brag that his threats forced the Syrians and Russians to make the deal, but the result probably will leave unsatisfied those who want to see Assad or his government actually punished for using chemicals. So long as they understand American policy to seek Assad's ouster, they may question how much the deal speeds the dictator's downfall. Some will refuse to trust Russia or Syria, of course, but the U.S. has its options open and Obama can now say, should he feel a need to attack later, that he gave Assad every chance to comply. It remains undesirable for the U.S. to wage war on Assad, but our figuring out a way, even if only for now, to avoid doing so is as much a victory for us as it is for Bashar al-Assad. Whether he has any right to declare a "victory" is irrelevant. The correct course for us, even more when he speaks than when he acts, is to ignore him.