Following the United Nations adoption of a binding resolution with the aim of ridding Syria of chemical weapons, there is a lingering suspicion that the great power game on this occasion, was won by the Russians, who outmanoeuvred President Obama and the West with their canny operating.
Among the concessions won by the Russians include the removal of all language that appropriates blame for the use of chemical weapons on the ruling Assad regime, in direct contradiction to much of Western rhetoric in the last month. And although the resolution refers to Chapter Seven of the UN Charter which allows for the use of force, a second resolution requiring any military intervention would also be required before such a move.
The resolution, while not perfect, is seen as a victory for pragmatism and compromise; and while it does not secure everything that President Obama and the West wanted to achieve and does nothing in the short term to admonish the actions of the Assad regime, even this resolution looked unlikely a couple of weeks ago.
Indeed, the last fortnight in international politics have done nothing to support the claims of those who wish to see the world in broad theoretical terms – the resolution on Syria hasn’t been reached through inevitable jockeying for position by realist states, or by cooperation by liberal actors, but by a chance series of events that began with an ill-timed vote in the British Parliament which David Cameron could have won had he stuck to the timetable that most political observers, and crucially, many sitting MPs, expected. The British Parliament’s rejection of military intervention in Syria caused President Obama to announce he would seek congressional approval for US military involvement and let to a delay before what seemed at the time like inevitable Western intervention.
An off the cuff remark from Secretary of State John Kerry about Syria giving up its chemical weapons being the only way intervention could be avoided was scoffed, sarcastic rhetoric, but ended up being the preamble to a negotiated settlement between the US and the Russians, who finally used their diplomatic clout with Bashar Al-Assad to force a more conciliatory and submissive approach from the Syrian regime.
And while there are undoubtedly some that feel that the United States has been embarrassed, and outmanoeuvred by the Russians over the whole affair, the reality is that despite the common perception of the US and its allies as bloodthirsty warmongers, there was never any legitimate appetite for war in the Western world following the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, where what were meant to be relatively quick engagements ended up being military and financial quagmires that they could not easily extract themselves from.
And the compromise position agreed at the United Nations only ends up looking more attractive when you view the Syrian rebels’ disjointed response to the resolution. Much has been made of the political ideology of the rebels, with many having links to Al Qaeda, and the fragmented nature of the differing rebel groups. But with many of the rebel groups rejecting the UN resolution and failing to guarantee the safety of UN Inspection teams, the problem of coming up with an enforceable resolution which would be suitable to all sides is shown to be a near unsolvable dilemma.
Getting “into bed” with the Syrian rebels was a morally dubious proposition enough already – now they have rejected the best proposal that the International community possibly could have hammered out, all prospects of them receiving outright Western military support appear to have ended. Assad would be the latest in a long line of brutal leaders that the world will have tolerated as the “least bad option”, and there are certainly those in the West who think he still represents this when the alternative is a radical Islamic movement with links to global terror.
While the eventually agreed resolution might have more resembled a Russian ideal than an American, it’s difficult to imagine that President Obama is too upset with the outcome either. His major foreign policy achievement has been the withdrawal of troops from America’s previous dalliances in the Muslim world, and will not have wanted to be remembered as a President who sent more American troops to the Middle East and bogged America down in another costly war.
There was little appetite for action in Syria within the Obama administration who have always truly been more focused on domestic matters. And now with the US government shutdown occupying both the attention and efforts of everyone in the US, any embarrassment over political “defeat” to Russia is likely to have very minimal resonance.