09/16/2013 10:30 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Russian-American Agreement on Syria: Winners and Losers


Bashar Assad, his mobilized state-run press and some of his remaining sycophantic supporters in Lebanon and other Arab states are celebrating a victory. Well, the dictator is entitled to his moment of relief, but if he really believes that he scored a victory he is engaged in a self-delusion exercise, the kind of which he had when he gave the notorious interview to the Wall Street Journal on 31 January 2011, boasting that in Syria there will not be any anti-government protest... Surely, a dictator like Bashar needs to maintain the façade of infinite wisdom and success, as the personality cult element has been one of the trademarks of both Assads, father and son.

In a struggle characterized by the importance of images and symbols, the fact that the worst has not materialized clearly tends to back up Syrian propaganda. Also, the hysteria displayed by some of the rebel leaders is serving Assad, as it is obvious that this line of talk by them may show that indeed the Syrian regime scored big. It did not.

Let us start with the fact that it is now clear beyond doubt that it was the regime, not the rebels, as claimed by some confused media outlets as well as the Assad government, which used the gas against innocent civilians. It is the Syrian regime which is expected to be stripped of its chemical weapons, not the rebels, and it is the Syrian regime which will be subjected from now on to international scrutiny. This point requires a clarification. There is a great deal of skepticism about the ability of outside observation to effectively see to it that the chems will be handed over and destroyed. Some of the skepticism has to do with the presumed lessons of the Iraqi experience. This blog does not share this sense.

Bashar Assad is going to lose some, perhaps a significant part, of his freedom of action. This is my sense, that both the Russians and Americans are dead serious about that. If Assad or his henchmen believed that using the chems against the civilian population would recreate a balance of fear and deter the rebels, he achieved the opposite. The dreaded weapon will NOT be used again, and if it will be, that may be the END for this regime, an act of total desperation. Also the option of going to the Security Council is not to be taken lightly by Assad. The Russians were those who used this very Security Council as a bulwark against a unilateral US action against Syria. Vladimir Putin will not like Assad betraying his own policy, and the Russians can change course about Syria quite rapidly.

This blog takes pride with the fact that as early as 28 January 2013 it called, for the first time though not the last, for a Russian role in solving the Syrian chemical situation. So, better later than never is in place here, and Russia finally gets its recognized role and place around the table, something which Vladimir Putin has yearned to have for quite a long while. In a way, a new ball game is starting now for the Russians. Now they cannot play only or mostly the role of the spoilers. Now they are co-architects of a possible solution, and this is another situation altogether. From now on, Putin will keep Assad under wraps, so as not to allow the client to disrupt the celebration of a likely diplomatic victory of the patron.

Those in America who regret the newly-established Russian role need to realize that in diplomacy, like in nature, there is no vacuum. America blew hot and cold for too long, was hesitant to throw its hat into the ring, and it was not just the president. Also many Republicans wanted to keep a distance from Syria, believing, or professing to believe that in Syria there are ONLY bad guys, because the rebels are mostly Al-Qa'ida. No, they are not, and most of the Al-Qa'ida partisans are foreigners, but using this trump card was a good way out for people who otherwise would have been interventionists.

In fact, by NOT striking at Syria, the Al-Qa'ida elements may be strengthened as some rebels could come to the conclusion that if there is not to be an outside Western intervention, maybe they should throw in their lot with the Jihadists. To sum up about the American role here, it is surely the case that the administration was not too eager to strike at Syria, but even when we take into account all the inconsistencies involved in the decision-making process of the Obama administration, it is still the case that Bashar Assad agreed and will HAVE to do what until now he did not want to do, exactly because he does not think that the US is a paper tiger.

And there are the Israelis. They must be happy, though with necessary reserve, about how things are shaping up. Israel would have supported an American strike, but it did NOT push for it, much to the chagrin of conspiracy theorists of all kinds, and they have been in constant touch with both the US and Russia since the beginning of the chemical crisis. So, IF the Russian-American plan is going to work, they will be and very likely are satisfied.. It means also that the Assad regime will not try to move chems to Lebanon and Iraq as is suggested by some unverified reports. Were the dictator to do that, he might commit a huge blunder.

This is not the intention or usual habit of this blog to sound too optimistic, some will say even naïve... but I definitely feel that there is a real good chance that THIS aspect at least of the crisis can be and will be contained. The crisis is far from over though, so that leaves us with the greatest losers, the Syrian people. The terrible atrocities will continue and intensify, and a once prosperous country, which could be a bread basket, is fast becoming a wasteland. A great tragedy.