It started as a peaceful revolt. It descended into a civil war that has so far claimed over 100,000 casualties and ejected nearly one-third of the population from their homes. Even worse, it has broadened into a regional conflict in which neighboring countries and their proxies try to tip the balance of power in a broad swath of territory from Iran to Israel.
The Obama administration has understandably watched this horror unfold in Syria without any real sense of how to ameliorate the situation. In August 2012, the president identified the use of chemical weapons as a red line that would, if the Syrian government crossed it, prompt a reevaluation of the "calculus" determining the use of military force. Well, calculus is a difficult subject, and the administration clearly was having difficulty with the numbers. For instance, it ignored more than a dozen reported cases of chemical weapons use reported to the UN.
Finally, after an August 21, 2013 attack in a Damascus suburb killed hundreds and possibly more than 1,000 people, the president began to prepare for a U.S. military strike. This was no September surprise. Obama gave plenty of notification that an attack was in the offing. Then he decided to go to Congress for a mandate. It was certainly reassuring that an executive was seeking legislative approval, but this was the same Congress that had tied every one of the president's legislative initiatives into tight knots. Reluctance, thy name is Obama.
The president had good reason to be reluctant. Even if American bombers had managed to locate all the chemical weapons stockpiles, the strikes would have endangered civilian populations and bumped up the conflict to an even greater level of ferocity. Moreover, a large majority of Americans opposed military intervention and supported what would emerge as the diplomatic alternative: a Russian proposal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons. The Syrian government has fully cooperated so far with the UN agency tasked with supervising the process.
In many ways, this is a remarkable outcome. Public skepticism, congressional resistance, and presidential reluctance have all combined to stay the Pentagon's hand, at least for the time being. This is an extraordinarily important precedent that could radically change America's leap-before-you-look approach to overseas interventions. America the bold militarist under George W. Bush became America the stealth militarist during Obama's first term (typified by his drone policy), and now may well morph into America the accidental diplomat in Obama's second term.
Before we start sipping the bubbly, however, we have to face some unpleasant realities.
First, the Russian-brokered compromise is not going to be an easy deal to implement. The war is still going on in Syria. The timeline is ambitious (destruction of the stockpiles begins in November and ends by mid-2014). And the UN agency doing the work is much more accustomed to mundane inspections. It's "kind of like asking a weekend runner to run a sub-three-minute mile," said Amy Smithson of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. (No one, by the way, has ever run the mile faster than 3:43.)
Nor has the war lost any of its brutality. During the week when negotiations over the chemical weapons were taking place, battles raged throughout Syria, leaving over 1,000 more people dead. "Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn't seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times," writes Liz Sly.
And this is not simply a civil war. The Syrian government relies just as heavily on its allies (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) as the rebels rely on theirs (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, United States). Foreign fighters are now playing key roles on both sides. Hezbollah has a particularly large stake in the conflict. If Assad falls and a largely Sunni opposition takes over, Hezbollah loses a principal sponsor. "Such a loss could also embolden hardline Lebanese Sunni groups to take on Hezbollah inside Lebanon itself," write Hugh Eakin and Alisa Roth in The New York Review of Books. "On the other hand, the more Hezbollah fighters help the Syrian army, the more Sunni refugees will come to Lebanon, perhaps decisively tipping the country's sectarian balance against the Shias."
Stopping a military intervention is one thing. It's quite another to resolve the three overlapping struggles in Syria: the fight against a tyrannical regime, the civil war among various domestic factions, and the regional struggle for dominance. Still, diplomacy might prove contagious and spread beyond the chemical weapons agreement. This is crucial. The "hands off Syria" position, unless applied strictly to military means, threatens to slide into the morally vacuous position of "let them kill each other," which may well be the purest expression of Islamophobia yet.
The most promising diplomatic development involves Iran. "This year's UN General Assembly may well be remembered as the beginning of the end for Washington's decades-long standoff with Tehran," writes FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian in How Syria Brought U.S. and Iran Together. "And none of it would have been possible if the Obama administration had gone ahead with its plan to attack Syria."
Indeed, the election of Hassan Rouhani as the new Iranian president represents the greatest opportunity for reconciliation since the catastrophic inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil" speech scuttled a historic rapprochement in 2002. "We were just that close," former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has said. "One word in one speech changed history." It's taken more than a decade and untold damage to the Middle East before we can return once again to that moment.
"The election of Rouhani has brought back to power those centrists and reformists within the Iranian system who are far more politically moderate and flexible than their predecessors," writes FPIF contributor Sina Toossi in Iran"s Rouhani Makes His Debut on the World Stage. "This group, which includes former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami among its chief proponents, has so far provided every reason to believe it desires détente and engagement with the West."
Obama has made some important steps toward Iran, such as directing Secretary of State John Kerry to handle the nuclear negotiations rather than a lower level diplomat. He recently talked by phone with Rouhani, which immediately raised alarms for hardliners in both Iran and the United States. Israel has warned that Rouhani is a "wolf in sheep's clothing," and right-wingers have always worried that Obama is a sheep in wolf's clothing. Diplomacy requires disappointing these perennial naysayers.
Rapprochement with Iran is a key step to resolving the crisis in Syria. Only when we dial back the regional standoff can we hope to negotiate an end to the civil war and then, ultimately, address the grievances that led to the initial civic protests. These are nested conflicts, and we must work from the outside in.
The road to Damascus, in other words, runs through Tehran. Obama, meanwhile, is Saul of Tarsus, astride his horse. And like Saul in the New Testament, the president may very well be on the verge of a conversion experience. Let's hope that he sees the light. The man who was about to wage war, however reluctantly, must now fall from his high horse and become a man of peace.