The myths about the agreement between the United States and Russia on chemical weapons in Syria should not be allowed to distract us from its importance. The idea that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, could avoid military action by giving up his chemical weapons was more than an “off-the-cuff remark” by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, on Monday. It had been discussed by Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main sponsor, at the G20 summit the week before (or so it was claimed).
So the idea that President Putin has outsmarted his country’s historical adversary by exploiting Mr Kerry’s “blunder” is mistaken. This is a deal that the US wanted too, and that the world should welcome.
We do not have to be starry-eyed about the prospects of the terms of the deal being met to see that it is a step in the right direction. The deal provides for the destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal under United Nations supervision by the middle of next year.
Mr Kerry yesterday talked up the prospect of the UN authorising military action if Assad failed to comply, but those words are not in the text of the agreement, and Russia would in any case have to agree that the terms of the deal had been breached.
The simple fact that agreement was reached, however, has two consequences. First, it makes it less likely that Assad or his commanders will use chemical weapons again, because to do so would embarrass President Putin. This is important because the need to deter the Assad regime from using gas again was the strongest argument in favour of the limited military action proposed by Barack Obama. Second, it means that Russia is engaged in a process that could ultimately lead to the ending the bloodshed.
Parochially, it is worth noting that the delay in air strikes sought by the British House of Commons provided the time to make the deal possible. Globally, as Patrick Cockburn points out on page 38, the return of Russia to the international stage is one of the more important changes in geopolitics in the past two years. In part, this is simply a response to the winding down of American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan under the Obama presidency, but Russia’s stepping forward was not inevitable. It was quite possible that, if the US had not taken the initiative in the region, no one else would have done so. And in the case of Syria, no one has. Whatever else we might think of a greater role for President Putin in world affairs generally, to the extent that Russia is now engaged in the search for an end to the carnage in Syria it is a hopeful change.
Russia is not the only patron of the Assad regime, however. As Lord Williams writes on page 39, “Iran must be in the room for any settlement of the Syrian civil war”. Again, we should not be naive in assuming that the recent election of the “reform-minded” Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president, and recent semi-official expressions of goodwill towards Jews, mean that Iran is now a force for peace in the region.
The agreement, however, could bring the Iranian leadership to see that its interests are best served by following the Russian lead and sharing some of the responsibility for ending the conflict in Syria. However distant such a prospect might still be, anything that makes a settlement even a little more likely deserves cautious approval.