A Syrian Deal? Really?

09/16/2013 11:57 am ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

Let's look at the logic of events.

The Syrian imbroglio appears to have left the president a little bedraggled, giving warrant to Harry Truman's observation that if you need a friend in Washington, get a dog. Even fabled "yellow dog" Democrats abandoned Mr. Obama last week. Congress was set to reject Mr. Obama's call for the use of force against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Obama's plea for endorsement of his warrant to use force was not a trivial matter. Allies and adversaries ought to believe a president means what he says regarding the protection of American interests.

However, as of Monday, September 9, few thought there was time, or argument available, to leave the president with any more cover at home, than he had abroad. President Obama's all-but-certain vain televised plea for support was hours away when Secretary of State John Kerry was asked by Margret Brennen of CBS if there was anything Assad "could do or offer that would stop an attack?"

SECRETARY KERRY: "Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."

Amazingly, an agreement to "turn it over, all" of Assad's chemical weapons, and allow a full accounting for those weapons, occurred in less than five days.

Assad's assent to a chemical and biological disarmament agreement, breathlessly crafted in Geneva by Russian and American negotiators, left many observers agape. Some were aghast. Critics noted that nothing offered by the Russians and accepted by the Syrians, could possibly be good for the United States.

Clearly, there had been an ongoing discussion between the United States and Russia regarding the ongoing use of chemical and biological weapons in Syria. Athena may have emerged full grown from Zeus's head, but arms control treaties by states in the midst of a civil war are not birthed whole, overnight, without predicate. The August 21 massacre outside Damascus brought more than a year's worth of talks and planning, to a head. Either there would be an international accord, or Mr. Obama's "redline" would be publicly impeached.

From Mr. Kerry's remarks in London, it was clear that Assad had to act in "in the next week." Otherwise, the president was primed to use American military power. The Russians apparently thought that Kerry's remarks were a promise that force was imminent, notwithstanding what Congress was set to do. The Russians knew they could not respond to an American strike on Assad's forces.

Neither Russia nor Assad's position was going to be improved after a "limited" American strike. Worse, for Mr. Putin, American arms were set to arrive at industrial levels. Assad might not survive the pressure of an American strike that could well reverse the tide of war. The more chemical weapons Assad took from storage and primed for use, the more likely that rebels might gain access to the WMDs or that some units charged with the management of WMDs might defect.

Russia was clearly not making a deal to salvage Mr. Obama. Mr. Putin's rush to stave off an action before Congress acted signified that Russia had come to terms with an increasingly unpleasant reality. Assad would have be brought to heel and the Syrian civil war had to be contained. Regardless of Mr. Obama's fate at the hands of Congress, Mr. Putin believed that the President was ready to act and/or that the situation in Syria had become too dangerous. The Russians had to retrieve something from a cascade of dangers.

Mr. Obama's reprise of Hamlet on international stage was poorly rendered. President Assad might have gained time, but the butcher of Syria's position was not improved; Assad was not a party to the negotiation. The agreement referenced a "chapter 7" UN military action for noncompliance.

This weekend's Russian-American accord brings light to the outrageous lie that the Russians and Syrians forwarded: that the 1,400 dead Syrians had gassed themselves. The Russian position is not that much improved if the agreement doesn't hold. If Assad does not keep to this agreement, President Obama will be in a stronger domestic and international position to employ force than he was on the morning of September 9.

Next time it will be harder for the Russians to walk away from their own agreement. Next time the Arabs, the British, NATO, United Nations and Congress will have to struggle harder to stand aside.

As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz headlined, the agreement was a "godsend for Israel." In Israel, hundreds of thousands of gas masks were being returned to storage over the weekend. For Israel, possible assertion of Russian influence in the region was not unwelcome. Israelis know that Russia would be essential to any framework for denuclearizing Iran. Russia would also be important to any diplomatic transition from the brutality and widening chaos engulfing the Middle East.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's family name means lion in Arabic, but Assad, an English trained dentist, found his fangs dinged on a Russian-American diplomatic anvil. Syrian rebels may feel disappointed, but, Assad's allies are fewer. Assad's reputation and position have been radically diminished.