The World after the Kerry-Lavrov accord on Syria

The agreement reached by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry at Geneva on Saturday regarding the sequester of Syria’s chemical weapons is a little unlikely to shorten the civil war or save many lives in Syria. But it did signal winners and losers in the region and the world.

The big losers were the anti-Baath Syria hawks, who were hoping that a US attack on Syria with cruise missiles would draw the Obama administration inexorably into the conflict on the side of the rebels.

Thus, the agreement deeply disappointed Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who wanted a US strike. In Europe, the French government had been hoping the US would go in with French help, allowing Paris to assert itself in its former Syrian colony and to insert itself into the center of world affairs again. The agreement likewise disappointed the hawks in Washington, including Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinin (R-FL) among the few US federal legislators who wants yet another war.

The winners were the Shanghai Cooperation Council and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which overlap somewhat. It is worth noting that Lavrov explicitly thanked this bloc, according to the translation of his news conference on Rossiya 24 TV:

“Today I would like to thank the BRICS countries and the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and many other countries for their principled support for the approach to settling the problem of chemical weapons in Syria exclusively by peaceful means. I hope that our meeting today will allow us to start working so these expectations are not dashed.

In conclusion, I will say that the resolution of the problem of chemical weapons in Syria will be a large step towards achieving the long-standing task of creating in the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.”


At one point in the press briefing, he was asked if he was surprised that the Chinese had just sent a warship into the Mediterranean off Syria. He said no and referred to the unity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups Russia with China and the Central Asian states, and accepts Iran and India as observers. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the SCO is the major international, multilateral organization that tends to oppose US foreign policy.

The agreement for Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and allow inspections of its chemical weapons averted a unilateral American attack on Damascus, which would have symbolically underlined that Russia is no longer a great power and has no inviolate spheres of influence. In contrast, since Lavrov put forward his plan last Monday to have Syria’s chemical weapons inspected, Russia has been treated as an equal by US diplomats. Russia has gained stature.

Moscow has also protected the Baath regime in Syria from the consequences of an American attack, which would likely have given a big boost in morale to the rebels and likewise would likely have degraded regime air capabilities.

Lavrov revealed how Moscow sees that part of the world:

“Indeed, as John said, we have disagreements, including on Syria. That is to say, we have a common goal – to achieve a peaceful resolution, and for Syria to remain a united, secular state, where all minorities and ethnic and religious groups are safe, with their rights protected. But we disagree on methods. Although here, as regards the issue of Syrian chemical weapons, we have found a common path. And this is how we should proceed on all the other issues too.”

The Putin government is backing the Syrian government in part because it sees that step as a way of protecting Syrian Christians, many of them, like many Russians, Eastern Orthodox. Ironically, at the same time the Russian government sees itself upholding the principle of secular rule against Muslim radical extremists. Syria’s Aleppo is only a 24-hour drive through Turkey from the Caucasus city of Grozny, where Russia faced substantial turmoil in the past two decades.

Russia won, the new military junta in Egypt won, Iran won, and India and Indonesia won.

The Syrian rebels complained bitterly about the accord, and declared they would go on attempting to overthrow the Baath regime.

Turkey’s religious Justice and Development Party was also deeply disappointed, though over 70% of Turks say they don’t want to get involved with Syria.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t typically convey its views in public, but surely Riyadh is little different from Ankara in its cold fury at the turn events have taken. The Saudis wanted the US to help overthrow the government of al-Assad.

The announcement in March of 2003 by the George W. Bush administration that the US would invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan regardless of what anyone else in the world thought was an announcement that the US was the sole superpower and the primary Middle East hegemon.

The Kerry-Lavrov agreement may have been the moment when the world returned to a multilateral foreign policy and the US stopped being the sole superpower. We are back to the nineteenth century when there were multiple power centers and each had its sphere of influence.

Posted in Syria | 89 Responses | Print |

89 Responses

  1. “Russia won, the new military junta in Egypt won, Iran won, and India and Indonesia won.” But did Syria win? Namely the mass of its Sunni majority. Getting rid of the CW is a worthy goal, and I’m glad to see that the U.S. is not going to bomb, at least right now, but I don’t think the agony in Syria gets resolved with the Assad regime in power.

  2. David Cameron won too. Now, his decision to go to the House of Commons seems wise, and he is no longer hanging out there in opposition to the USA.

    • David Cameron won how? He went to the House expecting them to line up behind him. He was obviously quite put out by having to “get it”.
      The majority of the USA didn’t want conflict either. Obama had to consult with Congress to avoid the threat of impeachment that hangs over him. Maybe now he should find something constructive to do with Tuesdays.
      David Cameron’s prime wish was totally at odds with the wish of the majority of Americans. They were happy to see him snubbed.

  3. Wasn’t the attack averted by Congress, Parliament and the public of the “special relationship”? Obama surrendered when he cancelled the test vote in Senate. The agreement is a consequence of his defeated plan, not its cause.

    • If Putin thought the strikes were off the table because of Congressional opposition, why would he have offered the deal instead of standing firm behind Assad?

      • Kerry initially offered the proposal and it was Russia’s support and influence with Assad that iced the deal.

        Also, this is a major victory for the vaunted “Shanghai Cooperation Council”.

        • Kerry initially offered the proposal

          Mark, do have a source for that? You aren’t talking about Kerry’s “off the cuff” statement at the press conference, are you?

        • @Joe from Lowell:

          My source is:

          link to

          While some have said it to be “off-the-cuff” this is actualy doubtful given the alacrity with which it bacame the basis for the accord.


          The Shanghai Cooperation Council has “flexed its muscles” with unprrecedented strength in the Mediteranean Sea – with a Chinese warship nearby. As Rep. John Conyers observed, Obama risked the potential of World War III by initiating aggressive military action against Syria.

          Obama needed this Kerry/Lavrov accord as a face-saving measure.

      • You mean Congress would have voted for the attack?

        Once in a while, it’s OK to take Putin at his word.

      • He’s smarter than the average bear. He realised that once Kerry had made the comment he couldn’t back out. It was a domino topple moment.

  4. Surely the big winner is the United Nations and small nations everywhere now the concept that wars can only be launched in legitimate self-defence or with the agreement of the Security Coucil has been re-asserted?

  5. Dear Professor Cole,

    I am truly amazed not only by the depth and range of your comments on the Middle East, but also by their timeliness, which is unusual among academics. One can find the most intelligent analysis of the most important current events even before they have been reported by the media. This makes Informed Comment a unique asset and a standard by which one can judge and correct the misinformation by the media and to gain access to an analysis of what the events really mean. I wish to thank you for this.

    However, in your list of winners and losers, I think the greatest winner has been the cause of peace and common sense. A military attack, even if it had been approved by the Congress, which seemed unlikely, would have been illegal, would have compounded the problems, and would have portrayed the United States as an aggressive country. The Kerry-Lavrov accord has changed the pattern of behaviour inherited by the Bush Administration of unilateral wars.

    The second biggest winner has been President Obama. Whether by luck or by design, his initial tough policy of the threat of force, followed by turning the issue to the Congress and starting a democratic nationwide debate, and finally forcing Syria to give up her chemical weapons have boosted President Obama’s stature as a cool, intelligent and brave leader who left himself open to a great deal of attacks by the neocons, as we have already seen from the likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for the cause of peace.

    The third biggest winner is the cause of international law and international cooperation. An action without Security Council approval would have undermined the UN and would have also caused greater strains in US-Russian and US-Chinese relations. If the complex problems of the world are to be tackled we surely need these big powers, as well as Europe as a whole and not just Britain and France, to work together.

    The biggest losers are the militant jihadists and their Saudi and Qatari backers who wanted to bring down a government, not at the ballot box but with a campaign of terror, a defeat that they richly deserve.

    What is needed now is to call for a conference to declare a ceasefire and elections in Syria under UN supervision and for all sides to abide by the election outcome.

    There is still a long way to go, but this is a great start. With the removal of chemical weapons from Syria it is time to declare a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and force Israel to declare her nuclear arsenal and get rid of them under international supervision.

    • The biggest losers are the militant jihadists and their Saudi and Qatari backers

      It’s not clear if you are referring here to the anti-Assad forces in their entirety, or only to the foreign-jihadist faction.

      Either way, in what sense are they worse off than they were on August 20, before the chemical weapons massacre?

      • The definition “militant jihadists” is clear. It includes both home-grown jihadists and thousands of Al-Qaida-affiliated forces that have moved to Syria to establish and Islamic Emirate. There are some moderate elements among the opposition, but the militant jihadists and their backers are worse off, because they were hoping that with military attacks against airfields and Army installations they would move forward and topple Assad. You can now see by their reaction to the deal how angry and disappointed they are.

        • The definition “militant jihadists” is clear.

          Well, no, it’s not clear. There are some people who use such terminology to describe one minority faction of the opposition (that is, people concerned with truthfulness), and others who use that term as a pejorative to describe the entire opposition (the Assad regime, the Russians, gullible and not particularly principled American leftists). And you haven’t exactly cleared up which definition you’re using.

          the militant jihadists and their backers are worse off, because they were hoping that with military attacks against airfields and Army installations they would move forward and topple Assad

          The question was, how are they worse off than they were on August 20th, the day before the chemical attacks? Not, how have they fallen short of achieving their fondest desires? You haven’t exactly cleared this up, either.

    • President Assad and his late father, President Assad, have been winning and abiding by the results of elections since 1971. I believe President Assad received 97 percent of the vote in his most recent election.

      • Doesn’t “winning” 97 percent of the vote suggest that the fix is in? Who wouldn’t abide by the results of such a foregone conclusion?

        • Thank you, Joe. Yes, I was being sarcastic. I think sarcasm is the most appropriate response to those individuals who, either out of delusion or bad faith, argue that the solution in Syria lies in “elections”. As if, the Assad Family Hereditary “Republic” would ever allow free, fair, and democratic elections, Yeah, right!

      • While the discussion is about elections of leaders who have been heads of States for too long, why not look at the elections of the Qatari and Saudi heads of States? There might even be others in the region who have been at the helm far too long and whose ruling has been reprehensible. Funny that we don’t hear about them on the mainstream media, not until they’re no more the flavour of the day that is…

        • No one would claim that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are democracies. But, Qatar and Saudi Arabia also are not massacring tens of thousands of their own people like Assad Senior and Assad Junior have done.

    • Well said,mr farhang,….agree on most points,..however there is no way Assad would agree to a truce allowing for a honest election,in which he would relinquish power ,nor will Assad remove anything,he will just duck and weave,stall for time..however he is not going to use chemicals…he won’t embarrass Putin…another thing,Israel will never abandon nuclear weapons,…would you?..not while being outnumbered 100 million to 5 million…with America and England showing an isolationist bend..eruope showing its old anti Semitic horns..Israel can only depend on itself…as so..she needs every possible edge she can muster……

  6. I believe the agreement, if implemented, will tilt the balance for Assad.

    The chemical weapons are guarded and maintained by his best troops, no doubt. Once armed UN forces come in to take over that role, Assad will have many thousands of loyal, fresh, well trained troops to enter the battle.

    The areas where the weapons have been kept become “off limits” to the opposition and jihadis by the UN forces.

    Assad couldn’t use the weapons in a manner like Saddam did against the Iranians (with US wink-wink, nod-nod). Taking them off the table doesn’t change much, except the balance of battle-ready troops.

    Blowback from the Carter doctrine, as Baecevich has written. Thanks, Jimmy.

    • If the chemical weapons capability was so meaningless to Assad, why did he maintain it?

      Why did his forces use it?

      While the world is clearly better off without Assad’s chemical weapons, it is not at all clear why Assad himself is. He seemed to like them quite a bit, and consider them to have value. Remember that not only have his forces deployed them against the rebels, but they have also used them as their massive-retaliation threat against competing regional powers like Saddam-era Iraq and Israel.

      • I think he realized, that using those weapons almost led to his governments destruction (getting hit heard enough to likely lose the civil war). If getting rid of them can deflect that threat, that is a bargain he can accept.

      • The chemical weapons were only useful to Syria in the event of a major war with a neighbouring country, i.e. Iraq when the two countries were hostile, or Israel.

        In a war against a major world power, Syria’s chemical weapons wouldn’t make much difference, since their arsenal is relatively small, and their delivery systems are inadequate.

        Giving up the chemical weapons is a loss to Syria, but not a severe one. Resolving the civil war is the government’s top priority. Besides, the presence of a multinational inspection team will also inhibit the rebel’s use of the chemical weapons they captured earlier during the civil war.

        Obama has shown flexibility. Putin has shown principle. Bashar, however, is the statesman who has really exhibited calm resolve.

        • It’s certainly true that Syria’s chemical arsenal was an important deterrent and expression of national power, but it seems rather mistaken to insist that that was all it was for the regime, given its recent (and, apparently, ongoing) use throughout the civil war.

    • It’s hard to believe the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar will let Assad, Russia and Iran actually win in Syria. It’s a stalemate right now, so “tilting the balance” means Assad will remain in power.

      I suspect, this is just a temporary setback for the Assad must go camps.

      Individually, John McCain and Bibi Netanyahu are the biggest losers. The conversation between John Kerry and Netanyahu would start with Bibi asking…”WHAT HAPPENED?”

  7. Three points:

    A. Russia no doubt is backing the Syrian government in part to protect Eastern Orthodox Christians and the primacy of secular rule over that of Islamic extremists. Nevertheless, I think the primary reason is that the alliance with Assad is the conduit through which Russia maintains a modicum of influence (and a naval base) in the Near East. Without Syria, Russia’s influence would be nil.

    B. Obama and Putin needed each other as dance partners in this diplomatic minuet. No doubt Obama’s threat to launch a strike on Syria got Putin’s attention. But Obama had boxed himself in with his “Red Lines” and talk of “Assad must go.” Obama then brought into question his seriousness by reversing himself and taking it to Congress for a vote he would likely lose, after first indicating a strike was imminent. Kerry’s London gaffe and Putin’s jumping on it offered Obama a way out.

    C. The results are a strike has been averted and Assad is strengthened. Putin has gained stature and Obama appears equivocal and amateurish. Finally, implementation of the chemical weapons agreement will prove contentious and painful, and the civil war will continue with no end in sight.

      • Russian influence no doubt is much more in Central Asian than in Syria. Nevertheless, if one is talking solely about the Near East, Syria is Russia’s only real conduit for influence.

    • The results are a strike has been averted and Assad is strengthened. Putin has gained stature and Obama appears equivocal and amateurish.

      This is a strange way to describe Obama’s accomplishment of his primary foreign policy goal without firing a shot.

      The criminal pulled a gun. The police aimed at him and said “Stop or I’ll shoot.” The criminal’s friend says, “You’d better do as they say.” The criminal drops his gun, so they don’t shoot him.

      The police shooting has been averted. Perhaps the criminal’s friend has gained stature, but it is not obvious to me that the police have lost any, or that the criminal has been strengthened.

      • Obama’s primary foreign policy goal regarding Syria has for two years been Assad’s ouster, with the chemical weapons issue only achieving prominence since their use a couple of months ago. I would say that Obama’s agreement with Putin leaves Assad in a much more secure position than before the agreement, as I doubt that Obama will launch a strike on Syria now even if the agreement becomes contentious and delayed in its implementation. Plus, Putin will run interference for Assad, and the amount of arms we contemplate giving the rebels will hardly be enough to tip the balance.

        Regarding Obama’s loss of stature, his handling of the issue has been a series of rather amateurish moves from the beginning. His drawing of “red lines” and emphatic pronouncements that Assad “must go” boxed him into an untenable position in which he either had to follow through or look impotent. Although he appeared to follow through with his “imminent” strike on Syria, his sudden reversal to put the issue up to a Congressional vote that he was likely to lose made him look even more equivocal and impotent.

        I am not a fan of Putin, but I think that the Russians appear to be in the driver’s seat now, and, yes, comparatively speaking, that does appear to have diminished Obama in stature.

        • Once the chemical attacks happened, dealing with the threat of proliferation and the erosion of the global norm surpassed the Syrian Civil War itself as a foreign policy goal for the administration. Note that they never threatened military intervention before that, and tailored their threats and the design of the proposed campaign towards degrading and deterring chemical warfare, not assisting the rebels.

          It is true that regime change has been a foreign policy goal (now a second-tier one), but even on that front, this episode doesn’t leave Assad in a more secure position. It leaves him without his chemical weapons to use in the civil war, and the US is backing the rebels even more than before August 21 (though the aid may not be enough to tip the balance by itself, it has nonetheless increased).

          Your second paragraph reads like a political talk show guest spinning during a campaign. Those aren’t reasons or facts; they’re lines from a political ad.

        • “Your second paragraph reads like a political talk show guest spinning during a campaign.”

          If you think his drawing of “red lines” and emphatic pronouncements that Assad “must go” did not box him into an untenable position in which he either had to follow through or look impotent; and if you think that his threat to follow through with an “imminent” strike on Syria and then his sudden reversal to put the issue up to a Congressional vote that he was likely to lose did not make him look even more equivocal and impotent, then your idea of deft handling of foreign and defense policy is very different from mine.

        • “Mine revolves around the pursuit of concrete ends, and has very little to do with the sort of language one might use when discussing a fashion show or an erectile dysfunction medication.”

          Mine involves the pursuit of concrete ends as well, Joe, but with a clear plan of attack to reach those ends. Obama lurched from one tactic to another, forward and reverse, seemingly unsure how to proceed in his “strike” against Syria. That he did reach the current agreement with Russia is due as much to the Russians pulling his irons out of the fire as to his own initiative.

          Obama’s approach to Syria in this affair, coupled with Russia’s entering into the minuet with him, reminds me of nothing so much as Bismarck’s comment:

          “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”

          God no doubt was looking over Obama’s shoulder during this affair.

        • Bill,

          My idea of “deft handling of foreign policy” is, indeed, quite different from yours.

          Mine revolves around the pursuit of concrete ends, and has very little to do with the sort of language one might use when discussing a fashion show or an erectile dysfunction medication.

  8. This is not 19th C Europe. There is only one empire left, the USA. Obama did not back down due to great power politics, he backed down because there was no support in Congress or among the People for even limited attacks on Syria. But the US looks very weak in international affairs right now.

  9. My reaction in brief:

    1) Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth: Defanging Assad and the Ba’ath by getting their stockpiles of non-conventional weapons makes this a better world.

    2) Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart: Obama and the W.H. fumbled the ball a few times but they came out with a deal they can celebrate. Carrying out the provisions of the agreement in the midst of a civil war sounds like Mission Impossible, but let’s see how this unfolds in coming weeks. If the deal results in the destruction of these foul weapons w/o bombing, that’s a political plus for any administration. As much as Senators McCain & Graham might delight in yet another US-MidEast adventure, most Americans think we have better things to do.

    3) Yes, Putin is a bastard. So what?: Vlad got involved to rescue his client state, not to promote peace, love and justice. Whatever. Russia grabbed the opening left by Kerry’s “seemingly” off-the-cuff remark (still waiting for the inside story about that.) If Russia’s interests and America’s coincide, why not work constructively.

    4) Republicans continue to inhabit a bizarro world: The other night Bill Maher had it right: If this wasn’t President Blackenstein, the GOP would be hailing this deal from every mountaintop. Fact is that a good chuck of the GOP opposed Obama both when he seemed ready to launch cruise missiles and when he announced the accord.

    5) It ain’t over till it’s over: Assad is a liar and a tyrant. He’ll do his best to exploit any lopphole to evade his responsibility to destroy his chemical weapons.
    As Gorbachev said on many an occasion, trust but verify.

  10. Re: My final comments in above post. It was Reagan, not Gorby who often said “trust but verify.” Still too early on Sunday to think straight.

  11. One Israeli air attack, one chemical attack by anybody in Syria will completely change this game. No, this does not look like any major diplomatic breakthrough at this point.

    • The opposition in Syria must be awfully disappointed the US are not busily blowing things up. There is still a chance of a military strike however if there is another chemical attack but it would be a real headscratcher for any analyst to provide a motive for Assad to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

      Perhaps this could be a test of the false flag conspiracy theory. If this accord which gives Assad so much satisfaction is scuttled by a new atrocity, the crackpots will be vindicated.

      • [There is still a chance of a military strike however if there is another chemical attack but it would be a real headscratcher for any analyst to provide a motive for Assad to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.]

        No, problems at all, here it goes already: Syrian opposition websites have posted pictures of what they claim is a fresh chemical weapons attack on Damascus, this time on the suburb of Jobar. The alleged attack resulted in casualties, activists told al Arabiya on Thursday.
        The claim comes after a purported chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21. link to

  12. The President delivered what is, in the annals of International Relations, a rare triumph of whatpolitical scientists call “Coercive Diplomacy” It is indeed diificult to pull off, certainly with such speed, and well nigh without historical precedent, save one – Iraq 2003

    Bush of course had already achieved his declared objectives without firing a shot but as we all know now, and many of us knew at the time, he was either too dense or too disingenuous to acknowledge it.

    It is hardly surprising that the Tea Party and War Party Republicans aren’t acknowledging Obama’s triumph nor I suppose surprising that you haven’t either Juan, just disappointing.

    • Imagine an alternate history in which George Bush uses coercive diplomacy to get the UN Inspectors back into Iraq in late 2002/early 2003, while continuing to concentrate his military effort on finishing off the remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

      I don’t know if another Democrat would have been elected for 20 years. A few years later, a contained, constrained Saddam Hussein sees the Arab Spring protests spread to Iraq.

    • Bush wasn’t running the show in Iraq. Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the neoconservatives had wanted to regime change Saddam for years. Google “PNAC letter to Clinton” and read the letter they sent to Clinton in 1998. Read the signatures at the bottom–1st column—“Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld.”

      Regime Change was the neocons declared objective.

      And it’s not surprising the War Party Republicans aren’t acknowledging Obama’s “triumph” since they want Assad regime changed in order to break up the Shiite link stretching from Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut. Damascus is the weak link. THEY WON’T STOP UNTIL ASSAD IS GONE.

      In a few months,with Assad still in power, this chemical weapons agreement won’t mean much. Assad doesn’t need chemical weapons to “win” and as long as he stays in power, he is winning.

  13. John, I agree mostly with all the points you made, but I have take exception to your use of name calling “Putin is a bastard” and “Assad is a liar”; it did not add any value to the points you made. One could use the same descriptions for our president and administrations and we would be all roiled up. As an example, our government, Obama included has repeatedly lied about NSA and other matters.

    • I agree. But it’s refreshing that Professor Cole, a noted academic and scholar on the Middle East, has all the human emotions we all have and sometimes in his passion gives into them. He’s human as we all are. All I’ve learned so much since I have been coming to his website. But I agree with you. You made a valid point.

  14. The defeat for the hawks (defined, as in the post, as those who wanted American involvement all along) have been dealt a defeat, but if Russia and Syria do not follow through, they could end up with a victory after all.

    Russia’s “win” is better described as “cutting their losses.” Their client state, who they were defending from charges of having and using chemical weapons just a week ago, is now being stripped of its chemical arsenal. This leaves them weaker against the rebels, as well as removing the retaliatory arsenal that made them a regional power (meanwhile, the US has only increased its support for the Arab Spring faction of the rebels since this crisis began). Russia itself is now responsible for the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal.

    It is true that Russia looks statesmanlike for offering this way out; at the same time, rather than protecting their client by themselves, they have confirmed their second-tier-power status by identifying themselves, in word and deed, as part of the BRICS group, and citing the collective action of that bloc for their success.

    Russia can only appear to have gotten a win out of this crisis if your analysis goes back only to early September, when the American strikes were assumed to be imminent, and treat that as the status quo. If you look back further, to the day before the chemical attacks, Russia has deftly cut its losses.

    When examining the outcome from a US perspective, you find that achieved its primary foreign policy goal in Syria – the prevention of chemical warfare and proliferation, and the strengthening of the chemical weapons norm – without firing a shot, while also increasing its support of the anti-Assad rebels.

    Finally, I’d say that the moment of the US not being a sole superpower came years ago, when the failure of the Iraq War prevented the rest of the ‘Axis of Evil’ strategy. The American role in the Libya operation, as a cooperative supporting player in both the vision and execution of the policy, demonstrates this new role in the world. That the situation in Syria has been contested for the past two years further demonstrates that the U.S. isn’t playing the hyperpower role it used to. The outcome of the chemical weapons crisis didn’t produce this situation; that was the situation when it began.

    • Are some people claiming that the US ‘not being sole superpower’ began with this Syria thing? Absurd. The real question: the unraveling of the ME, the inflamed Sunni/Shia divisions all began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

      As a possible strike neared, the Administrtion leaked that it was putting new targets in play, partly meaning missile infrastructure. Assad is much better off loosing chem weapons than his airstrips. The airstrips are vital to his brutal strategy. He saves them if he implements this Russian/US deal. Assad owes Putin. Putin is no hero, but if he’d call in his chips with Assad to force him into a cease-fire and negotiations, he just might turn into one. He’s been unusually flexible and clever for a Russian leader this time, but…..

      In fact, the last two weeks is just how the international system SHOULD work. Instead of vetoes in Security Council and artificially polarized agendas, both the US and Russia would get further competing at the diplomatic level If the US calling for Assad to leave is the reason a Security Council resolution failed a year and half – maybe 80,000 lives ago – then Clinton and Obama should have backed off that demand and called Russia’s cards. Because Assad is still there with no plans to leave but tens of thousands have died in the interim. The problem with third parties, expecially the intelligence-sparse US, is they don’t know ground conditions, overestimating the ability of the opposition time and again.

      • Why is it that some of these analyses leave out the US role in instigating this phony “civil war” / actual proxy war almost 3 years ago ?
        The CIA, under the US Neocon president in late 2010, are the ones who provoked Assad’s security forces to fire on unarmed demonstrators.
        The CIA, through Blackwater, armed and trained what we now call the “Al Nusra Front” Mercenary army.

        A pretty good case has already been made that the US’ closest ally in the region was behind most of the chemical attacks in Syria. Recall that their Intel service reported many of the attacks within mere minutes of when they occurrd. Coincidence ?

        Of course the American public is played for chumps. But this audience ?

        • “A pretty good case has already been made that the US’ closest ally in the region was behind most of the chemical attacks in Syria.”

          Where has that case been made, Brian, and what is the evidence cinching it as a “pretty good case”?

        • Why is it that some of these analyses leave out the US role in instigating this phony “civil war” / actual proxy war almost 3 years ago ?

          Because the Arab Spring actually happened, and wasn’t a CIA plot.

          Crackpot conspiracy theories aside.

    • Aren’t those two goals, ending the CW threat in Syria, and aiding the secular rebels now at odds. Obviously Putin/Assad aren’t stupid, and are making the CW lockdown/destruction contingent on ceasing the military aid to the said rebels. We can pursue, one, but not both of those goals.

      • I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are at odds (for instance, disarming Assad of his chemical weapons benefits the rebels), but they are certainly distinct.

        I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the deal includes restrictions on aid to the rebels (nor on Russian aid to the regime, which is much larger).

        The deal is no American bombing in exchange for locking down Assad’s chemical weapons. Assad and Putin are, indeed, not stupid; that is a good deal for them, given how devastating American air strikes could have been for Assad’s regime, and they are too smart to pass it up by over-reaching.

  15. Because I’m an Obama supporter, I’d like to agree with Farhang’s analysis, but I’m really leaning more toward a combination of Bill and John. Also, a surrender of Assad’s gas weapons is a little anticlimactic when what we know we need is a ceasefire and peace talks. My questions: how can anyone take the threat of an air strike on Assad seriously when we’re still sending aid to Egypt after their coup and the slaughter of pro-Morsi demonstrators in the streets? And does the US have anything resembling credibility on the WMD issue when we still use depleted uranium and white phosphorus and have a significant reserve of conventional nukes, as well as being cozy with Israel, which also has conventional nukes and regularly flouts international law?

    • Perhaps, if we ever pin down ALL parties who actually have been using chem weapons in Syria, this deal will be expanded to include Israeli chem weapons stocks, production facilities and research labs ?

      • Sorry to burst your carefully-constructed bubble, Brian, but the information in the UN report pins the blame definitively on the Assad regime.

        The munitions used, including 140 mm and 330 mm shells designed to come apart in mid-flight, are not used by the rebels.

        The trajectories of the armaments lead back to government-controlled areas.

        I have to say, the bit about the munitions full of chemical weapons being designed to break apart in flight adds a whole new meaning to the term “crack-pot theory.”

  16. “The Kerry-Lavrov agreement may have been the moment when the world returned to a multilateral foreign policy and the US stopped being the sole superpower. We are back to the nineteenth century when there were multiple power centers and each had its sphere of influence.”

    That is certainly preferable to a world ruled solely by the US, isn’t it?

  17. Sometimes one has to make a circuitous route to arrive at the outcome one actually desires. Bombing Syria does not fit with what I think a Nobel Peace Prize winner would do. This turn of events fits more closely with my image of Obama. Will we ever know if this was actually all by design? However, should this all turn out well, I think history will look kindly on him.

  18. The whole chemical weapons thing has provided a field day for cable news and pundits, but probably will make little difference in the end; nor would things have been changed if the US had made some token “punitive” strikes. If Russia and its allies want to protect the Assad regime they will provide the aid they think is necessary. The war will go on and finally will turn on something other than chemical weapons. The small tactical benefits they might have provided to Assad would not be worth further alienation of international opinion.

  19. Professor Cole,
    I generally agree with your views. I support liberalism in international politics and I think Kant’s ideal of perpetual peace is a good ideal to strive toward. I think collective security is the best way for America to go about world affairs, not individual pursuit of national security, or realist balance of power alliance-making.

    I agree it’s a good thing that the gulf states’ desire for the US to enter the war on the side of overthrowing assad, probably in favor of Al – Nusra and other wahabbist groups. It’s good that the extremist right-wingers in the Republican party – Graham, Ros-Lehtinen, McCain – didn’t get their way. It’s good that a diplomatic, and not a military, solution was reached this time.

    But I just can’t agree with your seemingly glowing assessment of our return to 19th century politics. This is a damning episode that shows Obama can’t handle foreign policy well, that weakens the US’ stature internationally even more than the Iraq and Afghan Wars or drone strikes could have, that really marks a low point for post-Cold War America.

    It is unequivocally bad that America needs the help of other nations to solve problems in the international arena. America generally should cooperate with other nations to achieve mutual goals and obey international law, but for America to need others is a problem. Balance of power politics introduces greater anarchy into the world system. And more anarchy in the world system will probably result in more needless wars, death, and suffering than we have witnessed in the last decade of a reckless unipolar world.

    Russia will be competing with China will be competing with India will be competing with Japan will be competing with Brazil, and who is to settle all these disputes? The worst case scenario of a reckless superpower is probably better off for most people in the world than multiple relatively equal nations in a free-for-all.

    On top of the consequences of anarchy, the increasing relative power of other nations – specifically Russia and China – will mean the further degradation of the international order that the West created. What kind of world order will China or Russia want, especially if or when China replaces the US as the greatest economic power? Will human rights have a place in that order? Will they implement relatively altruistic programs like the Marshall Plan for nations in distress? Will they protect the seas for global commerce objectively as America has for the last fifty years?

    It’s fine to be a liberal and desire international cooperation a la Kant, but the realities of the world demand that we temper liberal idealism with a little baseline realism. Lest other powers gang up on us in our moment of weakness…

    • “This is a damning episode that shows Obama can’t handle foreign policy well, that weakens the US’ stature internationally even more than the Iraq and Afghan Wars or drone strikes could have, that really marks a low point for post-Cold War America.”

      I’m not one to defend Obama but a unilateral attack on Syria would have devastated the US’ stature internationally.

      • “that weakens the US’ stature internationally even more than the Iraq and Afghan Wars or drone strikes could have, that really marks a low point for post-Cold War America.”

        OK, just so we’re perfectly clear: this is worse for American’s international stature than the Iraq War.

        Than the Iraq War.

    • I.L.

      It’s not collective security, if someone is acting unilaterally.

      What good is a “world order” if all it means is that single power is free to wage whatever wars it wants?

      Putin pointed the way: international action legitimised through the UN Security Council.

      My prediction is that the USA’s ruling class will be unable to accept a peer relationship with Russia, China, or India. Their 20-year experience of unchecked power, and the unprecedented wealth that accrued to the USA’s ruling class during that time, will drive them to wage war instead.

      After all, it’s not every day that some people find themselves with even a slender chance to rule the world. The temptation to “go for it” is almost irresistable. The concepts were outlined in the 2002 Defense Doctrine (“allow no peer competitor”, “full-spectrum dominance”)–concepts never since repudiated.

      So we’ll eventually find out how well ballistic missile defense systems work, under realistic conditions. My prediction there is that such systems will work well if they are employed in conjunction with a first-strike counterforce nuclear strategy, i.e. the BMD only has to deal with the residual retaliation of an enemy who has already lost most of its forces.

      Therefore, for a true restoration of multipolarity, Russia and especially China need to deploy a much larger number of warheads than they do now. Otherwise they are too vulnerable to a US first strike.

      Long term, hopefully nuclear proliferation will render infeasible the establishment of any kind of hegemonies in our world. A world with thirty or forty nuclear-armed countries would permit the widest possible variety of laws and governments.

      Liberalism needs such multipolarity. A global hegemonic monoculture will destroy liberalism, even if that culture were liberal in its origin.

  20. I don’t know if you did it on purpose, but leaving Egypt with an obviously blue background filled in with red after the fact is just perfect.

  21. Syria is already saying that they will give up their CWs only when the US stops sending weapons to AlQaeda rebels in Syria. Honestly I don’t think Syria will give up their weapons anytime soon. Russia and Syria just stopped a war that had already lost its momentum. And as time goes by I don’t think Obama can convince the world and the American people the need for strikes on Syria. President Obama is happy all the same because he got to save face.

    • I suspect Obama is only too happy to cut off all US aid to the non-Syrian, al Qaeda Mercenary forces of al-Nusra Front, the Frankenstein monster he created less than 3 years ago,
      as he pivots to support the replacement proxy force, the purportedly “moderate” “Sons of Syria.”

  22. Turkey certainly added to its new foreign policy of “precious loneliness” (which replaces the old “zero problems” policy). At the height of the Gezi protests, Erdogan was threatening to leave behind the west for the Shanghai 5, with whom Turkey shares centuries of cultural tradition (his words), and yet once he thought he could widen the war his focus has been exclusively on Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin.

    Meanwhile, the Turkish papers report that Zawahiri has directed that the Salafists not cooperate at all with the secular (FSA, SNC) forces and interests.

  23. I have a hunch that Bashar Assad’s apparent enthusiasm for ridding Syria of its own stock of CW is that he no longer feels that he can trust his commanders in the field *not* to use them. (And that’s not about him being a nice guy or caring about civilians.) But he can’t say that openly.

  24. a return to the balance of power international system? how will the international banking elite react to this? as long as the bankers have near-total control of the “sole superpower” they feel themselves masters of the world… war after war has been fought to control their domination of the world’s financial system via the dominance petrodollar. their vision of a global government certainly doesn’t include any possibility that they do not control completely every aspect of its economy!

  25. In my nutshell it all boils down to this: The sanctity of conventional weaponry, irrespective of the nature of the targets, has been preserved. An ironic tribute to Alfred Nobel.

    And the beekeepers’ will continue to be judged by the crease in their pants and the shine on their shoes, rather than the health of their bees. God bless the the beekeeper punditry.

  26. link to

    Time Magazine covers of the world: three prominently display Putin, the American version has some tripe about bread and circuses.

    Again, Prof Cole, there is another nation that “won” along with Russia, Syria and Iran, namely the American nation.

    Even with a non-stop propaganda blitz from the politico-media complex, less than 30% supported strikes.

    The times they are a changin’

  27. In 1997, when the USA ratified the CWC, we promised to demilitarize all of our chem wepons within 10 years.

    Ten years later, in 2007, we promised to destroy them all by 2012.

    In 2013, the “working” target date is 2022.


    Under Nunn-Lugar, we paid for the destruction of Soviet chem weapons at Shchuch’ye in the early 2000’s.
    It might be a show of good faith to get on with destroying our own chem weapons.

  28. I think the focus on al-Assad as the focus of evil misses some important nuance.
    To my understanding, there are still 7 “governments” of “nations” that still consider some human beings as chattel property. Six are in the GCC. Brunei is #7.

    All 7 are solid US allies.

    What do we have in common with a Saudi tyrant that still upholds slavery ?

    • “What do we have in common with a Saudi tyrant that still upholds slavery?”

      Slavery was officially abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1962. That does not mean that some Saudi households do not treat their Filipina and Indonesian help as if they were indentured servants, but it’s a stretch to say that the king “upholds slavery.”

  29. “The Kerry-Lavrov agreement may have been the moment when the world returned to a multilateral foreign policy and the US stopped being the sole superpower. We are back to the nineteenth century when there were multiple power centers and each had its sphere of influence.” Which ultimatly resulted in 2 world wars and a cold one, to decide who would be the sole superpower.

  30. And also how about keeping reins on the banksters, the oligarchs and the military industrial complex? We could also reform the UN Security Council to make it fair for the whole world, not just for five ex and actual superpowered empires and colonialist countries.

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