It would be nice to believe that Saturday’s Russian-American agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons constitutes the « advance » that everyone seems to be so eager to call it.
And one hopes that France’s firmness—the declared will of President François Hollande to strike Syria militarily, followed by his effort, unsuccessful, alas, to push a tough resolution through the United Nations Security Council—will eventually pay off and bring the international community into line.
But meanwhile, what a situation!
I am not talking about the letter of the agreement, which the experts immediately observed was: (1) Unimplementable. How, in a country at war, does one gather up and then destroy 1,000 tons of chemical weapons scattered across the entire territory? (2) Unverifiable. According to the best estimates, the task would require 20 times more inspectors than the United Nations mustered in Syria last summer, and who, for the most part, remained shut up in their hotels or were trotted around by the regime. (3) Unaffordable. The United States has invested $8 billion to $10 billion to destroy its own chemical weapons and, 20 years later, the task is not yet finished. (4) Tied to a timetable (« mid-2014 ») that, apart from being technically meaningless, sounds like a bad joke in a country where, for two and a half years now, hundreds of civilians have been killed each day by conventional arms. (5) The equivalent of a terrible trick, the principal effect of which will be, by placing the onus on the chemical-weapons inspectors, to externalize the tragedy, so to speak, and return the world to sleeping the sleep of the Unjust.
What I am talking about is Bashar Assad, who has been transformed, as if by magic, from a war criminal and enemy of humanity (in the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon) into an unavoidable, nay, legitimate, negotiating partner—whose spirit of cooperation and responsibility I fear we will soon hear being widely praised.
I’m talking about Vladimir Putin, who brought off the tour de force of posing as a peacemaker—getting everyone to forget, in the process, his own crimes in Georgia, Chechnya and Russia—with the same aplomb that he has showed when playing the superman athlete who brings down whales, tigers and giant pike.
I’m talking about the hesitant, timorous America that we have seen—through the incredible sequence in which Secretary of State John Kerry’s wise, forceful speech was juxtaposed against Barack Obama’s strangely indecisive remarks—taking seriatim and almost simultaneously every conceivable geopolitical position. I’m talking about an America willing itself into weakness. A quiescent America that Mr. Putin, with his astounding lecture on democratic morals published in the New York Times, has allowed himself the luxury of humiliating on her home field.
I’m talking about North Korea and Iran, which will have good reason to believe, from here on out, that the West’s word, its warnings, the promises it makes to its allies, aren’t worth a thing. Can you blame them for thinking that? And will those who presently are granting Assad his license to kill finally rouse themselves to anger when they see the ayatollahs crossing the nuclear threshold? Maybe. But the fact that one even has to wonder—the fact that this or that Islamist fanatic or crazy dictator might be encouraged to think that he could, in future, act with impunity, Damascus-style—constitutes a source of misunderstanding and confusion in international relations. The result is an instability far greater than anything that might have accompanied the warning shot planned, then abandoned, by the U.S. and France.
And, finally, I’m thinking about the civilians in Syria not yet killed by shelling or made to flee, and who now more than ever find themselves trapped. They are caught in a vise between the regime’s army—supported by Russian advisers, Hezbollah auxiliaries and Revolutionary Guards from Tehran—and the jihadists who draw strength from the West’s abdication and who increasingly are able to present themselves, despite poisonous future results not difficult to imagine, as the last hope of a people pushed to the brink.
There is, in the cowardly relief so widely expressed at the idea of seeing the prospect of military strikes dispelled, regardless of the consequences, a tone that cannot but recall detestable memories of the late 1930s.
Because history has more imagination than do human beings, let us suppose that Assad, heady from his unexpected reprieve, commits another massacre that the world deems excessive. Or let us suppose that the Syrian tragedy meter passes a certain point (150,000 dead? 200,000?) and that public opinion, which is now the arbiter of war and peace, suddenly finds this intolerable. Or let us suppose that the chemical-weapons inspections take a dramatic turn, requiring a response and military strikes. When one of the above happens, we will remember Winston Churchill’s famous and fateful phrase, adapted to the present context: « You were given the choice between strikes and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have strikes. »
Translated by Steven Kennedy
A version of this article appeared September 17, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Syria Deal Has a Hint of Munich.