One of the paradoxes of the Syrian crisis has been the way Russia and China have worked determinedly to prevent America from doing something that it clearly does not want to do.
I asked a diplomat from a P5 country about this in New York a few weeks ago. He said that while it was clear Obama did not want to intervene in Syria, Russia and China feared America would be forced into an intervention. This explains, he added, the lack of even a humanitarian resolution on Syria from the Security Council. 'We don't want to see an intervention via the back door', he argued.
Later, speaking to a range of Syria-watchers in Washington, I was told by most that eventually Obama would be forced by the spiraling consequences of the conflict to do what he fears most.
Yet no-one I spoke to could easily point to a key moment or factor that would move the President's hand: not humanitarian reasons (80,000 already dead); nor geo-political ones (how much more ground can Iran, Hizbullah or the Jihadis gain?); not the spillover (which could get worse, but that is already obvious now, so why wait?); nor even, as we have already seen, the use of chemical weapons.
A number of observers noted that Obama was rejecting almost every course of action recommended to him with an almost bloodless calculation of the statistical likelihood of success. Or, as one said, Obama is acting more like America's 'analyst in chief' than its 'commander in chief'.
That quip wasn't intended as a compliment, but given the last decade of American policy in the Middle East, many would applaud Obama's more pointy-eared approach as a welcome change from the clench-fisted policies of his predecessor, George W Bush.
But here's the thing. Obama's coldly analytical approach may play out in a way so brutally pragmatic that it will make even his warmest applauders shuffle uncomfortably in their café chairs. In fact, if you understand that Obama's overwhelming imperative is to keep America out of the conflict, as it clearly is, then logically he would even be willing to settle for an Assad victory. Read More
The president understands that the longer the conflict goes on, the more likely that there will eventually be some unexpected calamity that will force a change of policy; or perhaps the weight of negative consequences from the conflict will grow so heavy that he can no longer ignore them. Therefore, he needs the conflict to end, and to end by the most expeditious route.
In the early days of the uprising, Obama undoubtedly pinned his hopes on Assad's rapid departure. With the regime showing great resilience and perhaps even some recovery of late, he may now secretly and reluctantly calculate that the best hope of avoiding an intervention is if Assad stays.
It is a harsh judgment to make of Obama and an even harder claim to substantiate. And I am not saying Obama would actively work toward that outcome — just that he might not work to avoid it either.
A key test of this hypothesis will come with the mooted Geneva II conference. Even as it was announced there were fears it was just a means for Obama to deflect growing calls for a more direct role in the conflict, in particular by arming the opposition.
In fact, the EU's mostly empty decision to lift the arms embargo on Syria is being portrayed, conveniently, as a first step in an effort to convince Assad that he needs to negotiate at a Geneva II. I am not sure Assad will be rushing to capitulate, not least given that so far he seems to have been the only beneficiary of the EU's decision (with the Russians using it as a pretext to announce they will go ahead with the long-mooted delivery of S300 missiles).
But it is also being argued that, if Geneva II fails, then the West will have no choice but to throw its military weight behind the opposition. Indeed, as this Ha'aretz piece argues, even the Israelis may now be less ambivalent about pushing Assad out, given that Israel's arch enemy Hizbullah has so unequivocally tied its fortunes to Assad's survival.
It is at this point where Obama's narrowly-focused determination to keep America out of Syria will be tested. He will either decide to keep to his current course or he will succumb to the interventionist chorus, placing America on an escalatory track towards even greater military involvement — precisely what it seems he is most seeking to avoid.
This does not mean I believe Obama's options are either military intervention or doing next to nothing. There is, I believe, a diplomatic, de-escalatory option, as this piece from the European Council of Foreign relations outlines. It would require, however, a deep and sustained investment of diplomatic effort, even while the fighting continues in Syria. This is an investment Obama has so far been reluctant to make. Allowing Secretary of State Kerry to scurry around the region on diplomatic mission to inter alia revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict is not evidence to the contrary.
But by choosing to avoid either a decisive military intervention in Syria or to make a decisive diplomatic intervention (however faint its prospects), Obama has largely settled for being led by events and actors in the region. And given the trajectory of those event, this may mean, in effect, settling for Assad.
Photo by Flickr user Bombardier.