An attack on Syria, no matter how "unbelievably small," as the Administration at one point characterized it, has now almost certainly been avoided. Such an attack would have placed the West irretrievably in the public eye as a supporter of the rebels and as an opponent of the Assad regime. Instead, a rewind of Western policy has set in.
The rewind began on Thursday, August 29, eight days after the massive gas attack on Syrian civilians at Ghouta by the Assad forces. The House of Commons, in a close vote, unexpectedly rejected the idea of a British attack on Syria. In a related development, President Obama and his National Security Adviser, Dennis McDonough, took a walk the next evening on the South Lawn of the White House, where for the first time the president disclosed his intention to turn over to the Congress the issue of whether to attack Syria. Later that evening he disclosed this to a surprised circle of advisers.
On Saturday, August 31, Obama telephoned a dumbfounded President François Hollande of France to tell him that the imminent French-American attack on Syria would have to be put off, as he was referring the matter to the Congress.
Shift to London, where on September 9 John Kerry, whether inadvertently or not, suggested that Syria would do well to give up its stock of chemical weapons but added that he did not think Bashar al-Assad would agree. Hours later, using the Kerry remark as a peg, Russia announced that it was proposing that Syria give up its chemical weapons and that Syria, in the person of its Foreign Minister, who "happened" to be in Moscow at the time, had agreed. Though it looked like a Russian suggestion, the idea of neutralizing Assad's chemical weapons had been under discussion between Moscow and Washington since the previous year.
In a further rewind, the U.S. and the U.K. announced on December 12 that their non-lethal aid to the moderate faction of the rebels, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), would be suspended, as the newly-formed Islamic Front had driven the FSA commander, Gen. Salim Idris, out of Syria and had seized his warehouse of Western-supplied equipment.
We are now at the point where the Islamists comprise one-half to two-thirds of the rebel forces, who have not had a significant victory since last February. The notion that if the West had given military aid to the rebels, before the Islamists moved in, we might have had a different Syria today is to my mind absurd. The Islamists would have gained the ascendancy sooner or later, as extremists usually do over the course of such movements.
We are now faced with a "Geneva 2" conference opening on January 22, with the aim of achieving a political compromise in Syria. On the one hand we have a weakened, but not defeated, rebel side, with the Islamist groups increasingly in the lead, and on the other hand Bashar al-Assad, whose credibility has probably been irremediably undermined from the fact that his regime has killed thousands and thousands of its own citizens.
It remains to be seen whether Russia has the willingness, or the capability, to tip the balance away from its client Bashar and towards an acceptable compromise candidate for the leadership of Syria.