09/16/2013 10:35 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Obama's Syrian Test of Chaos Theory

The roller-coaster ride that the Obama White House has given us on Syria over the past two weeks is unsettling. We have yet to recover from the vertigo it induced. Imperative air strikes to maintain American credibility in defense of red lines and ethical principle by punishing Assad one day; give diplomacy a chance to prevent it happening again is the new imperative the next. The President insists on his right to take military action without seeking Congressional endorsement, but then suddenly changes his mind after a walk in the White House gardens with his Chief of Staff. First the strikes will be "tailored" so as to produce minimal damage beyond the degrading of Syria's chemical arms capability, only to be followed by the President's solemn statement that the "United States does not do pin pricks." The all-out campaign to win over Congress is then quickly shelved when defeat looks certain - and the Putin ploy arrives in the nick of time. All the Presidents' men swear up and down that it was the threat of force that has made diplomacy possible, yet he opts for ambivalence on that score by putting off Congressional action. Who's the real audience - Damascus, Tehran or Jerusalem? Depends on the time of day.

Coherence and finesse never have been the hallmarks of the Obama foreign policy. On Syria, vacillation and fickleness have set a new record. What can we make of this display of fecklessness? Two evident truths emerge from these turbid waters. One is that we are no closer to any resolution of the Syrian conflict than we were on August 20 despite all the sturm und drang. The great chemical arms drama arises from the civil war but is not central to it. None of the fundamentals have changed. The two sides are locked in a military deadlock as mutual hatred grows. The West, led by Obama, has declared flatly that "Assad must go." However, they are not ready to arm the rebels because the opposition is composed of hard-line salafists (some aligned with al-Qaida groups) as well as the liberals and moderate Muslim forces of the Syrian national Council (SNC) that we find compatible. Unfortunately, the former have been gaining in relative strength over the two and a half years while Washington dithered over the question of providing material assistance.

Six months ago, it pledged to deliver small caliber arms. None have arrived - to the exasperation and fury of the SNC. Perhaps they have been delayed at customs on the Turkish border. Or, perhaps the CIA is trying to micro-manage their distribution into whosever hands they go. Boots have arrived on the ground - without American soldiers in them.

Hence, the Obama people hesitate and equivocate - irresolution has become an art form. Of course, doing nothing is itself a policy since it means allowing the local parties, along with other outsiders, to determine the outcome - however long that may take. A hands-off approach also increases the likelihood that lingering strife and bitterness will ensure that Syria will not be a unified, stable state for the foreseeable future. Violently anti-West forces will be part of that political landscape. So too will be the intensification of Sunni-Shi'ite hostility throughout the region - in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in the Gulf.

The second evident truth in this murky picture is the high improbability that Obama will ever resort to military action of any kind in Syria. His near death experience this past week as he moved to the edge of taking military actions that carry the risk of unknowable after effects doubtless has traumatized him. Obama habitually and instinctively avoids taking irrevocable action. He does not court danger or tempt fate. True, he has no qualms about killing people (he is no pacifist) nor doubts about the intrinsic virtue of American actions. He has resorted to force readily: the Afghan escalation, in Yemen, in Libya, in Somalia. He relishes drone strikes and innovated the kill list which he maintains personally and meticulously. We should bear in mind, though, that all those instances had a key feature: fail-safe elements. That is to say, circumstances permitted him to avoid their spinning out of control or, at the very least, of being unsusceptible to spin. Syria obviously carries no such provision. That is the big difference that prompted Obama to procrastinate and finally to jump eagerly into the Russian escape hatch.

Secretary Kerry's warning yesterday to Assad that we can still bomb him itself was evidence that the Obama people understand that the President's credibility is compromised.

There appears only one possible scenario that could lead to a less gloomy conclusion on Syria. It turns on the ability of Washington, Russia and other, regional parties to reach and implement an agreement on the issue of Assad's chemical weapons. Although they are in and of themselves of secondary strategic importance, that success nonetheless conceivably could pave the way for those same outside powers to act in concert to facilitate a political settlement of the civil war itself. It would be a messy affair, likely involving intrinsically fragile elements of federalism. If achievable, however, is would be better than other imaginable outcomes.

A condition for such a daunting diplomatic effort to succeed is the involvement of Iran. Its ties with the Assad regime and its central role as a protagonist in the Sunni-Shi'ite competition makes it a natural and necessary participant. The Obama administration, though, has refused to acknowledge that reality - to date. With renewal of the nuclear talks impending, amidst the mild optimism engendered by Hassan Rouhani's accession to the presidency, the moment is propitious for a shift in Washington's attitude toward the IRI. The White House has make a few gestures at opening wider communications with the new leadership = most notable the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani.

The open question is whether the White House assumption is that they can get what they've been after all along from a more accommodating, more needy Iranian leadership OR now realize that they too must be more accommodating as to what terms of a nuclear deal they will accept and as to a change in the overall tenor of relations with the IRI, i.e. accepting its legitimacy and legitimate interests. If the latter, the enlistment of Tehran in a delicate diplomatic campaign to end Syria's agony is a possibility. This change of mind in the White House would be welcome.