During the past month a tumultuous series of events took place in Syria. After threats escalated and a fragile settlement was concluded, one thing remains clear: Obama’s projection of military and diplomatic power cannot compete with the regional dynamics that are moving the Syrian conflict.
It began with increased pressure on the United States to act upon the multiple alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria. As Obama put forward a threat of military intervention, Russia blocked any international action through the UN Security Council after Britain’s Parliament impeded action from America's chief ally. Finally, following Secretary of State John Kerry’s unintended gaffe, Russia mediated a diplomatic solution to the conflict. This led Bashar al-Assad to agree to place the Syrian chemical arsenal under international oversight.
While many say that this diplomatic solution was a cop-out Obama exploited to get out of a sticky situation, the solution, as of now, represents a net loss on the American front.
From a military perspective, the United States did not succeed in effectively projecting power against Assad’s regime. The threats did not alter Assad’s stance on the attacks and simply reinforced the Ba’athist rhetoric against another U.S. invasion in the region. Also, while slightly more irrelevant considering the almost nonexistent weight of law in these matters, Obama’s international legal rationale for a possible intervention went against the UN charter, which states that no international norm can be maintained through force. Finally, the deal that was recently struck by Assad is likely to take months if not years to be implemented, not guaranteeing full oversight and most likely not affecting the number of innocent Syrians that will continue to be killed in the coming months.
From a diplomatic angle, the Syrian case has also been, until now, an utter American failure. Russia, not particularly influential in 2001 or 2003, manifested its newfound political strength in the region. By sticking by Russia's longtime ally, Putin emphasized Russian strategic coherence in the region, sending a signal to regional powers like Iran, Israel, and Turkey. Putin was formidable at bypassing Obama in addressing the American public directly, both through declarations and a cunning op-ed in the New York Times. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said, it was as if Russia was playing chess and the U.S. was playing tick-tack-toe.
Needless to say, Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) attempt to copy Putin by sending an op-ed to Pravda was meek and ineffective. Since when does Russian public opinion have a big influence on short-term foreign policy decisions?
Another temporary victor was Assad. While retaining control over the situation, Obama’s mediation granted him a degree of international recognition that he had lost. All negotiations went through the regime, thus implicitly recognizing it as still being the de-facto sovereign government of Syria.
Meanwhile, the outlook for the U.S. looks just as bad as it has for the past month. Its ilitary credibility is more fragile than ever. However, there may be a way for Obama to salvage some good from this debacle. As the UN General Assembly’s meeting approaches, rumors of a possible meeting between Obama and Iran's newly elected President Rouhani have spread among American lawmakers. This potential encounter, formal or informal, would revolutionize relations between the countries and would certainly not be possible had the U.S. struck Syria. It would also rationalize Obama's lack of military strength by substituting power projection with concrete diplomatic engagement. While this may have not been Obama’s grand-scheme mid-August, it surely could become one that restores actual credibility in light of the past empty threats against the Syrian regime.
As we wait to see if Obama manages to turn a situation around, trying to establish a more diplomatic and conciliatory legacy, fighting will likely keep going on in Syria for the foreseeable future. Belligerents and innocent civilians alike will continue dying as Syria’s fragmented population continues to redefine its very structure in a process that is bigger than any foreign country’s capabilities.