There is nothing on the horizon to indicate the ripening of a "Grand Bargain" or even of a settlement among international, regional, and local players over Syria, by virtue of which the military option would be taken off the table. Last week's exciting developments were topped by President Barack Obama backing down on moving forward with a limited military strike aimed at disciplining and deterring the Syrian regime, one which the whole world had braced itself for. Indeed, this was followed by the US President's announcement that he had made the decision that it was necessary to direct such a strike, but wanted Congress to reach a similar decision.
At first, it seemed as though the axis consisting of Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah, and the regime in Damascus had triumphed over the United States, or even over the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), which appeared fragmented, divided, scattered, and frightened. But this impression quickly dissipated when the team from the Obama administration metamorphosed from a group of doves into a group of hawks, and headed to the US Congress with the overwhelming confidence that Congress would authorize the president to take military action - even if he has no need for a Congressional mandate in the first place. President Obama reserved the right to carry out his decision and direct a military strike regardless of what happens in Congress, and headed to the summit of the Group of Twenty (G20) in Saint Petersburg, carrying a strategy of embarrassing others, so as to reverse the balance that has given the impression that this predicament was his own. Barack Obama has brought himself out of a cage he had been almost alone in, widening the circle of responsibility to include public opinion and Congress, at the American level, and the governments and public opinion of the world's twenty most prominent countries, at the international level.
Absent yet present, and of great importance in the balance of settlements or bargains, is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is playing a fateful role in Syria, both directly and through its ally Hezbollah, which publicly admits to fighting alongside the regime in Damascus. The latter has escalated and threatened of a third World War if the US President were to dare to carry out a limited strike, though he made it clear that the strike would not be aimed at toppling the regime. As for Tehran, it has made clear to all those concerned that it was clinging to its policy of support to Bashar al-Assad's government, without backing down, hesitating or changing anything, no matter how great the threats and fear-mongering might grow. Iran, and with it Hezbollah, have entered the discussions of the US Congress in an unprecedented manner, within the framework of their connection to the Syrian crisis, bringing about a major shift in the American debate on the issue of Syria.
The government of the new president in Tehran, Hassan Rohani, has deliberately signalled to the world, through those who have visited it, that it was ready to engage with the United Nations, and that it is prepared to adopt a discourse that would be more open. Yet Rohani's representatives made it very clear that there would not be the least bit of change with regard to Syria, and that the policy of ensuring Assad's victory and his remaining in power until the 2014 elections was still the policy followed by Tehran. This itself is Tehran's "red line," whether in a bargain or a settlement, or in response to military action of any kind.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to suggest that he was ready to join a unanimous decision at the Security Council to grant the authority to engage in military action in Syria. Yet he made such readiness contingent on impossible conditions, insisting on his original stance that the use of chemical weapons in Syria had been at the hands of the Syrian opposition, not of the regime. Putin challenged the US President to provide conclusive evidence that the regime in Damascus did in fact make use of such banned weapons, without placing any similar burden on himself to prove his accusation that the opposition made use of such weapons.
China is keeping silent, as it usually does, but it is also still standing in the axis of defiance, which includes Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad alongside Iran and Russia. What will China do if Iran and Russia were to become embroiled in the conflict? What will China do if the United States and a group of countries were to become engaged in military action in Syria? This remains unknown. What is known is that China has remained consistent in its alliance with Russia on the Syrian issue. There is also information that it is providing different kinds of assistance - direct and indirect - to the regime in Damascus, not just through Russia, but through Iran as well.
As permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China are both responsible for preserving world peace and security, and for preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons. Their strategy so far seems based on questioning the evidence, which the Obama administration claims to be patent, that the regime in Damascus has made use of chemical weapons. It is a strategy of negation and denial. Indeed, admitting to this in any way would bring Moscow and Beijing a great deal of embarrassment, and in fact would make them stand accused of purposefully breaching treaties on the non-proliferation of banned weapons.
All parties in the axis of defiance are wagering on Barack Obama's weakness and on public opinion in the United States and in the West in general, as well as on Western parliaments. What happened in the House of Commons in Britain has proven to them that they were right to make such a wager. Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron was too hasty and committed a tactical mistake, allowing for what some have described as "deception" on the part of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, and for a vote in the House of Commons against military action in Syria. Cameron's political needs, as well as the sympathy of friendly governments regarding such needs, have led to Britain's exit from a "coalition" that was being formed with the United States. Such a development has come to prove the extent to which British decision-makers have come to distrust the United States, as well as the extent of their readiness to undermine the special relationship represented by the alliance between the two countries. It also represents a painful blow for both David Cameron and Barack Obama, as well as a precious gift for Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. It has also come to expose a kind of "hypocrisy" among those who raise the banner of the necessity of confronting those who would commit crimes against humanity, in the House of Commons as well as within the ranks of British public opinion.
This "upset" caused by the vote in the House of Commons for Barack Obama has contributed to his sudden backing down, which came as a shock to several capitals - including Paris, where Socialist President François Hollande had resolved to replace Cameron in the alliance with the United States. Obama thus decided, in light of such an analysis, that his political interest required turning the tables on those on those who had accused him of acting unilaterally and taking military action without obtaining the sanction of the Security Council - as his predecessor George W. Bush had done. He decided to buy time and to drive decision-makers in America to share the responsibility with him.
His Secretary of State John Kerry - who received a different kind of blow when President Obama placed him in the forefront of making threats then let him down by backing down - dusted himself off and turned into one of the most important members of the US administration charged with convincing Congress of the benefit of voting in favor of military intervention. The Kerry of 2013 has turned against the Kerry of 2009, who used to defend Assad and his wife Asma, believing them to represent figures of reform. He now describes Assad as a "thug" and a "murderer", and has become one of the major figures calling for military action in order to preserve the reputation of the United States, as well as in order to protect America's national security.
The discussion in Congress has shifted away from a limited punitive military operation against the regime in Damascus for making use of chemical weapons and to deter it from repeating such a mistake. The discussion has broadened and addressed the significance, consequences, and repercussions of submitting to such a development without responding or taking measures. The circle has widened to address not just the repercussions of remaining silent and retreating before the Assad regime, but also to include the significance of Hezbollah emerging victorious from the civil war in Syria, of the Islamic Republic of Iran emerging victorious from the war in Syria at the regional level, of Russia triumphing over the United States on the issue of Syria, and of allowing the Russian-Chinese alliance to force the United States into silence and fear.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a resolution allowing for military strikes against the Assad regime, in a "limited" intervention with a maximum duration of 60 days, with the possibility of extending this to 90 days, without deploying American troops on the ground - with important language having been introduced to it upon request from Republican Senator John McCain, stating that the official policy of the United States aims at "changing the dynamic on the battlefield in [Syria]". This was accompanied by measures that indicate the resolve of the United States to step up its military support for the armed Syrian opposition and put an end to the covert nature of such support by shifting responsibility for it from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the Department of Defense.
The main pillars of the administration, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, represent an important team in formulating the goals of military operations - from deterrence to undermining or "degrading" the regime's capabilities, and to changing the dynamic on the field. Equally important is the fact that Congress's approval - if it does approve - of military operations would in effect mean that the United States has entered the battle in Syria not with just a single strike, but rather with repeated military strikes for at least two or three months, which would pave the way for the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors.
Members of the axis of defiance, who have been mocking and laughing at President Obama for backing down, may well find that the joke is on them. Indeed, there is today every reason to believe that Barack Obama will obtain broader powers from Congress, and that he will, upon his return from Saint Petersburg, address American public opinion to inform it that he will be going through with the decision to intervene militarily. Of course, there is a real possibility that Obama would turn away from military action if Congress were to oppose it. Yet his insistence on the fact that he personally, as the President of the United States of America and the Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces, has the right to take such a decision suggests that he is resolved not to appear weak again, especially after having repeatedly declared holding evidence that the regime in Damascus did indeed make use of chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians and hundreds of children. Indeed, he does not want to seem like a paper tiger, confused and weak - as the alliance of defiance has portrayed him. He does not want to be the President who always backs down and does not confront those who violate international law and human values. And he does not want his historical biography to depict him as the man who yielded to threats from Bashar al-Assad's regime, from Vladimir Putin, or from the Islamic Republic of Iran.