So quickly considering how the situation in Syria has changed recently:
After the brazen gas attack in Damascus recently made it plain that the Assad regime was indeed using chemical weapons in defiance of international law, Obama was reluctantly drawn into rolling closer to military action against Assad. Our general policy of supplying the rebels and generally resisting and opposing Assad seemed justified in light of him being confirmed as a user of illegal methods. But of course a war-weary public in America is not behind Obama on this, and in this matter Congress is uncharacteristically representative.
In this situation (and this is the briefest summary) Russia rushed in with a proposal to avoid a bombing or invasion by the alternative course of having Assad’s chemical weapons turned over or placed under some sort of international control. Russian diplomats are adamant that military intervention be avoided at all cost, mindful perhaps of the temptation of escalation. I don’t mean to say that Russia’s concerns are altruistic; Syria is Russia’s ally, and they have any number of reasons for not wanting it transformed into an Iraq.
This proposal, to pursue chemical disarmament instead of regime change, has been hailed on all sides as a win-win, with the only reservation being Obama’s concern that it might not be genuine or might not be enforced. Obama is to be allowed to save face even if Congress really does refuse to authorize his airstrikes. Russian diplomacy is to be seen as successfully preventing the invasion of its ally. Assad is to avoid Saddam Hussein’s fate. The Syrian opposition (and Israel) are to enjoy relief from the threat of Assad’s chemical arsenal. But there is an entirely different angle to consider: Through this proposal, which was made possible only though the publicity of Assad’s chemical warfare, has transformed the debate from one where Assad must be ousted to one where this will not even be considered. His throne has been made entirely secure against external forces, because he gassed civilians in front of all the world. Such indifference to regime change was impossible until he committed a specific atrocity, which captured the attention of the world and actually distracted from its perpetrator.
In this case, our interventionist foreign policy has provided an incentive for the use of chemical weapons, and thus their possession. Had Assad killed all those people with conventional artillery (as he has done to other people far more numerous) he would have not violated international law and provoked its special concern. Had he not invoked this taboo, he would not have been able to appease his enemies so easily. The gas attack in Damascus was brazen and obvious because it was intended to be known; he has actually strengthened his position in the international community by violating its laws. We are so obsessed, and so willing to be distracted by, proliferation of these particular weapons of massacre that we are willing to let this topic trump our interest in the tyrants really responsible.
One would imagine that all the other minor dictators are currently considering the acquisition of some nerve gas, in case they ever need something to distract the US. “I’ll be able to slaughter anyone I want, and if it ever comes to the threat of invasion I’ll just gas somebody and then offer to give up my WMD’s!” Russia has invented a new way to manipulate international opinion and the American military, and we’ve walked right into it.
Russian and American diplomats are going to go into negotiations to determine whether this proposal will be put to Assad in the form of an ultimatum or a toothless demand; in reality this is merely a show of compromise, the Russian objectives are already entirely secured. If the resolution is toothless, all for the better. If it must be given teeth (in the form of some consequences for non-compliance) it will only be a trivial price to pay for the evaporation of American commitment to regime change in Syria. Only the Russians must appear to fight against this so that it may appear as a victory to American eyes even as it brings about all of what Russia wanted, and none of what we did.