Bob Bowker is a former Australian ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Syria. He is now an Adjunct Professor at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.
Russia has offered President Obama a way out from the prospect of losing a vote in Congress authorising the use of US armed force against Syria for its use of chemical weapons (CW).
The Russian proposal provides, in essence, for Syrian CW to be held securely and destroyed under international supervision. Similar to an initiative suggested by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the Russian proposal has its share of blemishes and uncertainties. Obama may return to Congress later, if the Russian proposal fails to win acceptance by the Syrians or within the UN Security Council. For now, however, US plans to seek Congressional approval for punitive strikes appear likely to be put on hold.
It is far from certain whether Syria will directly acknowledge possession of CW material. Syria and the UN could fail to agree on what might constitute credible international surveillance and accounting of Syria's chemical weapons stocks. And the timing of the Russian initiative suggests an intent to foil US military action against Syria rather than a serious intention to address the chemical weapons issue. Nor does it take account of whether Assad's opponents within Syria may also be using CW.
Nevertheless, Obama will be hoping a deal can be struck. He may also be tempted to suspend disbelief about the Syrians' performance under the Russian proposal, especially if his reluctance to respond to Assad's initial crossing of US 'red lines' is a guide to where his foreign policy and domestic priorities lie.
The reasons are simple. From a foreign policy perspective, there is a strong case for punitive military action against Syrian targets. But the risks of mission creep and unintended consequences from military action are real. Moreover, the price for securing Congressional backing among conservatives determined to promote regime change in Syria continues to rise. Without a clear connection between punitive strikes and US policy towards securing a desirable end state in Syria, and given the lack of popular appeal in the US and elsewhere of military engagement, the US will to fight at this juncture is in doubt.
In short, the pursuit of a punitive approach now looks less appealing to Obama than the card the Russians are offering him.
For his part, Bashar al-Assad will probably expect to play the type of cheat-and-retreat strategy that kept Saddam Hussein and the UN inspectors dodging around each other for a decade. If his Charlie Rose interview (above) reminded us of nothing else, it is that Bashar, under pressure, is a very cool and ruthless customer indeed.
However, the fact that the Syrian regime remains unabashed at its international condemnation is of less importance than securing an undertaking from Bashar, at least privately to the Russians and his other supporters, that he will not allow Syrian chemical weapons to be deployed again. If CW were to be used after Russia has put its weight behind such a guarantee, Bashar would put a great deal more at risk, with foes and friends alike, than before.
The potential costs involved, which may include a rise in Russian standing in the region at the expense of US prestige, are not inconsiderable. But if a scheme can be put together that saves Obama having to take military action without Congressional backing while retaining a fig leaf of US credibility about its intent and capability; that leaves Assad warned off and unlikely to use CW again; that avoids further damage to Syria and Syrians as a result of punitive air strikes; and which gives the UN Security Council and possibly other UN agencies a part to play, we would probably have avoided a worst case scenario.
Policy-making in regard to the Middle East is not a morality play. Choices have to be made between bad and worse, and the most logical approach is by no means sure of succeeding. But in this case, we should hope it does.