The use of chemical weapons in Ghouta has moved the Syrian issue to a qualitatively new threshold, at the military level on the battlefield, as well as at the level of international and regional relations. The axis consisting of Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah, and the regime in Damascus now finds itself in a predicament. It has the choice to bow down before the United States' military push to teach a lesson and discipline those who would use or would protect those who have used such unethical weapons, even if through a series of non-fatal blows not aimed at uprooting the regime. It also has the choice to confront the United States' military operations, which are supported by other countries in the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), including Turkey. The first option would be embarrassing, especially after all of the overstatements, arrogance, encouragement of obstinacy, and wagering on structural weakness in the American presidency. The second option is a complicated one, because each of the parties in the axis of defiance has carefully calibrated relations and considerations with the United States of America, which they would not easily jeopardize. Perhaps within the folds of last week's developments lie elements that would drive international and regional players to strike that "Grand Bargain," the making of which has so far cost more than a hundred thousand Syrian casualties, a million Syrian child refugees, and the use of chemical weapons - the sight of whose victims is heart-wrenching. Yet it is clear that what happened this week has ruled out the possibility of reaching a solution similar to the Yemeni model, where the president stepped down in a dignified exit process. It is too late. The use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity, one after which it will not be easy for Bashar al-Assad to remain in the presidency in a dignified way until the next elections in mid-2014. Indeed, it is too late for that as well. Any "Grand Bargain," if one is in the making, will therefore move beyond the Syrian President and most of the leaders of his regime - save for a few exceptional and important members of the regular army. This is why talk has emerged of a "new army" meant to include members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - with the complete exclusion of extremists in the Syrian opposition - and members of the regular army - with the exclusion of those whose loyalty is to the Assad family before being to Syria. And any likely "Grand Bargain" will require reshaping American-Russian, American-Saudi, American-Iranian, as well as American-Chinese relations. This is alongside the emergence of talk of a different kind between active regional forces in the balance of power - most prominently between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Iran and Turkey, and perhaps Turkey and Israel as well. Yet what is on everyone's mind now is the timing and the nature of the promised military strike, as well as its targets, its results, and its repercussions, locally, regionally and internationally.
President Barack Obama has taken the decision not to turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons. The statements of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel make it clear that military intervention has been studied, military plans have been prepared, and everything is now contingent upon the President issuing his orders.
The momentum of leaks about the locations and targets that will be bombed is striking, and in fact so surprising that it raises doubts about whether their true purpose is to elude military action at the last moment, or to drive the other players to reach an understanding or a bargain that would render military intervention unnecessary. Some even go further than this, saying that all of this momentum of statements and locations is aimed at absorbing anger and preparing the people for military action - and that this storm will be followed by calm, allowing for military retreat under the cover of the need for a political and diplomatic understanding.
Others believe that such an assessment is nonsense, that Barack Obama will surprise those who have dwarfed him and tried to humiliate him by describing him as weak and lacking the courage to engage in military action, and that he will bomb locations completely different from what has been leaked. They say that he is a patient man, until he loses his patience; a truce-seeking man, until he takes the decision to confront; and an intelligent man, who would not drive his State and Defense Secretaries to take public stances like the ones they did, only to back down and embarrass them, nay, embarrass America.
The timing of military operations will also remain classified, yet it is clear that it will wait for the United Nations team to leave - a team that is gathering samples with the aim not of laying the responsibility on the government or on the opposition. Indeed, the team's mission is a scientific one, as it must submit a report about whether chemical weapons had been used, the kind of chemical weapons that were used, etc. - not conclude who used them.
The move made by the United States, with Washington announcing that it had evidence the Syrian regime made use of chemical weapons against civilians, something which the regime denies, and the move made by the United Kingdom, with the draft resolution it proposed at a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council, mean that waiting for the UN team to leave Syria's soil is meant to ensure the safety of the team, not to wait for a report that would lay responsibility on this or that side. Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari tried to prolong the stay of the team on Syrian soil when he asked that it head to three other locations to investigate. Russia and Iran tried to condemn both the use of chemical weapons and military intervention at the same time. Russia demanded waiting for the team's report. And Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for waiting until the team had completed its mission, but asked the Security Council to take political and ethical responsibility.
Most likely Russia and China will prevent the Security Council from adopting a resolution to "take all necessary measures", as they have previously prevented the Council from taking any action regarding the Syrian issue, by using their dual veto three times, and by obstructing any attempt to issue a Presidential Statement that would require the unanimous approval of Council members.
Clearly then, there will be no military intervention authorized by a Security Council resolution. Indeed, those who say that a Security Council resolution should be necessary for any military intervention mean to say that they do not want any military action to take place, even if it is aimed at containing the inclination of the regime in Damascus to make use of deadly chemical weapons against the men, women, and children of Syria. Any other explanation is only tantamount to burying one's head in the sand, except for those who are truly convinced that such an amount of poison gas is available to the Syrian opposition as has led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people - and the burden of proof lies with them, not the opposite.
Russia should be required to bear the burden of proof for the claim that the opposition used such lethal weapons. Otherwise it truly is making light of the lives of the Syrian people, and in particular of Syria's children. If it can truly prove its claims with the necessary speed, seriousness, and realistic evidence, unlike with its previous allegations, then the Syrian opposition that used this poison gas would have to be punished with unanimous international support, without hesitation or delay. Indeed, it would never be acceptable for chemical weapons to be the means to any end, whether for the regime or the opposition. It is an unforgivable crime.
Whatever the purpose of political maneuvers or side talks may be, the use of chemical weapons that has taken place - which Washington assures to have been at the hands of the regime in Damascus - has resulted in a major transformation in the stance taken by President Barack Obama, who had always resisted getting dragged into the Syrian arena. Perhaps the leaders of the regime in Damascus misread President Obama or misestimated the international reaction, after having previously used a lesser amount of chemical weapons. What has happened is that it is no longer possible to elude this "red line" after the events of Ghouta.
America has thus entered the battle of Syria following the use of chemical weapons, directly if it bombs or indirectly if it arms the opposition or allows it to obtain advanced weapons. Talk today falls within the framework of military strikes by an international "coalition" led by the United States, which would pave the way for establishing a no-fly zone or safe zones and security corridors, as Turkey has previously sought after. This represents a major transformation. For NATO to play a direct role also represents a major transformation. For countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, and perhaps Egypt as well, to join the effort, in turn, represents a major transformation.
All public statements by the United States indicate that the goal is not to direct a finishing blow that would topple the regime, but rather to punish and discipline the regime, not change it. There are many reasons for this, including: first, the fact that the Syrian scene is not ready for the alternative, despite talk of a "new army" having come a long way; second, the fact that the utmost care is being taken not to allow the American strike against the regime to lead to strengthening extremist and terrorist elements in the Syrian opposition; third, the fact that not setting the toppling of the regime as a direct goal of military operations provides the opportunity for major defections, which would allow for important members of the regular army to join the new army led by members of the FSA leadership; and fourth, the fact that air strikes would provide an additional and effective basis for the process of exhausting the regime.
In other words, a completely new chapter will be opened at the start of the first military operation carried out by the United States and the new coalition. It is a chapter of successive air strikes and of bombing that could last a week, a year, or even many years. One of the goals of this, on the one hand, is to weaken the regime and exhaust it to such a point that it would be forced to agree to concessions in what could be Geneva 2 or a bargain of a different kind. The other goal is to give other parties in the coalition the opportunity to topple the regime themselves instead of the United States. This is in reference most prominently to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as Turkey.
Indeed, this is an essential battle on the map of the balance of power in the Middle East, as well as for the quality of international relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been excessive in wagering on the powerlessness of President Obama, to the point of making light of him and insulting him. He failed to remember that the American establishment has in the past been through similar experiences with the Soviets that had resulted in declawing those who had gone too far. He really thought himself the leader of a superpower and forgot that the president's personality - as highly important as it is - is part of the equation. Now, President Obama has been forced to respond: I am here.
Obama's refusal to listen to Arab concerns about his giving the green light to Iran's violations in Syria - purposely or inadvertently - has resulted in Saudi Arabia playing an untraditionally public role, in turn on the basis of saying: we are here. This is why Riyadh has moved with Moscow and with Washington equally, so as to clearly say that the battle for Syria is not a fateful one for Iran alone, but is equally fateful for the Arab region. It is a battle for the regional balance of power, and it is also a battle to reject having Iran, Turkey, and Israel imposed as de facto powers alone in the balance of power in the Middle East.
Turkey has been forced to understand that it would not hold Egypt through the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Iran will be forced to understand that it will not hold Syria through this destructive war. Indeed, Turkey today is weaker than it had been at the start of Obama's term, as Egypt has today liberated itself from the Turkish "model" which Obama had thought to be the "recipe" for new rulers in the Arab region. Iran is weaker as well, because it has become militarily implicated in Syria, both directly and through Hezbollah. It is neither able to continue buying truce with the West following the use of chemical weapons, nor to confront the West militarily, due to its economic bankruptcy and its urgent need to appease the West so as not to be held accountable for its nuclear ambitions. Thus, even if Tehran were to choose confrontation by dragging Israel into the battle, it realizes that this would lead to potential vengeance against it at the nuclear level for Iran, and would provide the opportunity on the field to implicate Hezbollah in a Lebanese war that would lead it to withdraw its fighters from the Syrian arena.
Russia, like Iran, will never enter into a direct war with the United States or Israel, as the Syrian arena is for it an arena of proxy wars, not an arena of military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Moscow will continue to act arrogantly and misleadingly until the dying breath of the regime in Damascus, but it will not commit suicide for its sake. Indeed, the use of chemical weapons that has taken place has changed the rules of the game. Putin may well value the services provided him by the Damascus regime, but he is neither a fool nor willing to commit suicide.
This is a new milestone that could lead to peace in the Middle East through a regional balance of power of a different kind. And it may well represent another pitfall for several of those playing the game at Syria's expense.