By Fouad Ajami
Asli Aydintasbas, a young Turkish columnist with steely nerves and a keen grasp of Middle Eastern politics, sent a note from Istanbul to a Hoover Institution blog. Her title tells the story: “Where Have the Americans Gone? Who Invited the Russians Back?” It was mission accomplished for John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov. Their diplomacy, so full of twists and surprises and a stunning American reversal, delivered a way out of a tight corner for the two dramatis personae in this Syrian drama, Barack Obama and Bashar Assad.
For Obama, the eleventh-hour reprieve came after all his options had led to a blind alley.
He had threatened to bomb Syria without having his heart in the thing. He had wanted Congress implicated in the decision to order the strikes, but defeat on Capitol Hill seemed certain.
He had cast about for foreign allies, yet he had always been a loner, and he was to meet the usual evasions within the councils of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A dreadful war had been raging in Syria for 30 long months. Obama finally took his stand, drew his red line on the violence and cruelty of a single day, Aug. 21, when rockets containing the nerve agent sarin hit the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Benign neglect of Syria had not worked: It was either an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria, Kerry’s words, or abject retreat. It was then the Russians offered Obama an exit he was more than eager to accept.
Obama was flexibility itself. The choreography was terrible, but he could live with it. He was more interested in results than style points, he said. Let the naysayers proclaim he was being played by President Vladimir Putin; his own spinners would say that the retreat was evidence of his ability to take in new information.
Assad, too, was spared. The Syrian dictator could not be sure of what would befall him and his regime in the face of U.S. strikes. True, there was the Kerry assurance about the “unbelievably small” attack the administration had been readying for him.
There were also the countless messages conveyed by U.S. officials that the regime itself would not be the target of a strike, that American diplomacy didn’t trust the opposition to his regime – even saw the more viable of his opponents as jihadists who would impose a reign of darkness were the regime to fall.
All this was in the scales, but Assad knew the fate that had overtaken Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. In their domains, these dictators had preened and strutted, and they warned of the hell and the fire that would sweep the Arab world were they to be attacked, of the calamity and reversals that would await U.S. forces. Hussein had been the big neighbor next door and had meekly come out of a spider hole to be sent to the gallows three years later. Gadhafi’s end had been particularly gruesome; the bluster and the money and the mercenaries and the secret tunnels had not protected him.
A tyrant who hails from a despised minority sect, the Alawites, who had inflicted death and ruin on his country, Assad wasn’t eager to try his luck in the face of the U.S. missiles. Several days of strikes could embolden the Sunni Damascenes, hitherto quiescent in the face of Alawite repression.
The crowd could find its nerve and courage and storm his hideout; the edifice of tyranny built by his father could crack. In the world he ruled – what remains of it – a reprieve offered by the Russians could be passed off as victory. Thus a regime that (by its pronouncements) neither owned chemical stockpiles, nor used them, was ready to sign off on a U.S.- Russian proposal to inspect, then destroy, these stockpiles.
Assad bought the most precious of commodities: time. He had waited out the early victories of the opposition. Help from Iran, and from the Hezbollah movement, had spared him certain defeat. The retreat of the Americans would serve as a reminder to the rebellion that the powers weren’t done with him, that the West wouldn’t redeem and arm the rebels.
In a flash, Assad was willing to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. A hermetically sealed realm, he declared, would now be open for international inspectors. That pledge needn’t worry him: It was a reasonable bet that the crisis would blow over, that the Americans would weary of the matter of Syria. Let the foreign inspectors scour the chicken coops in the country, let them search the remote Alawite hamlets where stockpiles could be stored and hidden. Assad will have lived to fight another day.
Obama brought to this crisis a willingness to live with a good measure of second-guessing and ridicule. His bet was that the country had changed, that the time-honored notions of American “credibility” no longer held sway. He had been elected to end wars, not to start them, he had declared time and again. The traditions of rescue of nations in distress, he seemed to imply, have died out in American thought and practice.
The American president is a diminished figure after this debacle. But his devotees never tire. They see wisdom and prudence in the retreat. It is enough for them that Obama isn’t George W. Bush, and that Syria isn’t about to become an American burden.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of “The Syrian Rebellion.” This commentary, which first appeared at Bloomberg, is published by permission from the author.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 21, 2013, on page 7.