There is a yawning chasm between the hope of eliminating all of Syria's CW and the practicalities of achieving it. Still, the idea that a state could renounce the use of such weapons and allow them to be destroyed proved too tantalising for the US and Russia to pass up.
As with any political agreement, there are winners and losers, though in this case more of the former, an unusual situation for anything to do with Syria. For a quick first glance at the protagonists' ledger, I offer the following:
For a commander-in-chief increasingly seen as vacillating, and who faced a tough battle to gain Congressional approval for a limited military strike, this agreement is a potential legacy-saver. The framework potentially gets Syria to sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and rids the country of a large amount of its CW inventory, without having to actually use force or to face a bruising Congressional process. It almost sounds too good to be true, and only time will tell if it is.
If Assad simply uses this agreement as a means to buy time and avoid military strikes, Obama will need to secure UN authorisation to take action against him. Despite the framework talking about UN Chapter 7 powers of compliance, no UN resolution has yet been agreed.
Another winner. It has stood solidly behind its Syrian ally and with this framework has apparently averted a US attack on Assad's forces, given Washington an acceptable reason not to attack, and has allowed Russia and Syria to maintain their version of events regarding the 21 August CW attack. It's some nice diplomatic work that shows Moscow is still a player in the region (and for Russia, the issue of prestige should not be underestimated).
The apparent ability to navigate such a tricky diplomatic shoals should allow Moscow to demand a more significant role in any upcoming nuclear negotiations regarding Iran.
Assad has literally dodged a bullet, for the time being at least. Likely under the urging of his allies, he has played his hand well. Assad knows his CW are not a vital component of his military arsenal, and in the future he may wish to claim that if such weapons are used again, it was not authorised by him (a plausible scenario). The move has also provided some relief for his allies, whose claim that the 21 August attack was the work of the opposition was looking increasingly indefensible.
Assad has temporarily dislocated his opponents, politically and militarily. The fact that the US has agreed to the framework would indicate a real but unacknowledged understanding that Assad will remain in power for some time yet.
There is, however, the somewhat sticky problem that the UN Secretary-General believes Assad is guilty of crimes against humanity. But that is for later.
Losers from this agreement, but it's hard to have any sympathy. The head of the Free Syrian Army denounced the deal while the Syrian National Council announced over the weekend the election of a new prime minister. It has not made much of a splash in the media, indicating that the SNC is several steps behind the main players mapping the future of Syria.
In the rather bizarre geopolitical theatre that is Syria, we now have the Syrian regime, which allegedly used CW, appearing to be on the diplomatic front foot while the opposition, against which the CW was used, is getting bad PR.
The opposition's Achilles heel has always been its lack of political and military unity, and the threat of a US-led strike has forced people to look even more closely. Opposition lobbyists in Washington have come under scrutiny, while the BBC has begun to look at atrocities carried out by rebel groups.
The opposition's disunity and political naivete was best illustrated by the recent attack on Maaloula, a beautiful and historic town that symbolises Syrian Christianity. While the US Congress was being asked to look at providing US military assistance to the opposition, Islamist elements of the rebels were staging an attack against the town.
If the verification and removal of Syrian CW does go ahead, it may be even harder to justify arming the rebels while international inspectors are in the country.
The Syrian people
The biggest losers. The CW is a sideshow to the war and virtually all of the 100,000 people who have died have been killed by conventional weapons. The framework does nothing to stop the killing.
Photo courtesy of the US State Department.