Sure, you might think President Obama woke up Wednesday breathing a sigh of relief, having been thrown a life raft by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who convinced his dictator buddy Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpile. It came just in time, before the U.S. Congress voted down a resolution supporting Obama’s proposed strikes on Syria, rendering him weakened abroad, a lame duck at home and a president that history would recall playing a starring role in the diminishment of the U.S. presidency. For now, all that is on hold. Phew.
But Obama knows that the deal Putin proposed, and Assad agreed to, legitimizes Assad, keeps his regime in power, hinders the ability of any moderate elements within the rebel factions to succeed and fuels the campaign of al Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front to convince any remaining secular insurgents that America was choosing stalemate all along. Sen. John McCainJohn McCainThe trouble with Rex Tillerson Senate: Act now to save Ukraine A Cabinet position for Petraeus; disciplinary actions for Broadwell after affair MORE (R-Ariz.) couldn’t have made that clearer when he said on MSNBC Wednesday that he felt sorry for the Syrian Free Army, who will now feel that the United States has abandoned them.
Of course, Putin began retreating from the offer before Obama even came to the East Room of the White House Tuesday night to give a prime-time address to the nation, claiming action was only possible if the U.S. would remove the threat of force. Then there’s the fact that the disarmament of Syria is almost impossible anyway. Weapons inspectors describe the challenges as unprecedented, an effort that if accomplished would take years and potentially tens of thousands of troops to execute — and only for those weapons Assad didn’t continue to hide.
Indeed, Obama still faces the possibility that the Syrian crisis, exacerbated by his own decisions, could overwhelm his entire second term. When and if the diplomatic negotiations fail, Obama will likely be on his own. Having delayed a vote on a resolution authorizing strikes, few lawmakers support using force should the Russian and Syrian offer fail, and general support for strikes has only deteriorated since the debate began. In addition to Syria, any escalation between the Israelis and Iranians that led to a confrontation would also probably leave Obama without majority support for any use of military force to back up the Israelis.
Obama sought, with his prime-time address, to convince the country that America is still the indispensable nation that has a duty to respond to any chemical attack. He made clear he is skeptical of the plan from Russia, and he made clear he has tried to avoid engaging in Syria as long as he could. He didn’t ask for support for force; he just said the military should maintain its current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, though the world now knows he isn’t likely to act. He said he hoped disarmament would lead to a political solution but didn’t describe how that is possible, which didn’t make his assurances that any potential retaliation from Assad would fail in the face of U.S. military might all that comforting.
Obama still has no discernible Syria policy. In the weeks ahead, he will need to find one.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.