Syria attack stuck in fog-shrouded limbo
By Victor Kotsev
Despite the elaborate recent preparations by the United States to attack Syria, all the while it was not completely clear that US President Barack Obama was truly serious about going to war. Just as now, despite the spectacular diplomatic pirouette of the last couple of days, it is not entirely clear that he's serious about staying out of the war, either.
If the whole attack campaign was a bluff, it was a very elaborate and persuasive one ... so persuasive, for example, that the crack Western anti-war crowd of 2003 started mobilizing over again to send human shields in front of the likely targets of their own governments' missiles.  Now after both the United States and Syria have, at least in words, embraced the Russian proposal for
Syria to give up its chemical weapons in exchange for Obama holding his fire, the American president at least has the excuse to climb down his ''red line'' ladder.
After all, what better way to prevent the further use of chemical weapons than a deal to remove the stockpiles from the alleged perpetrator's possession? No limited attack could accomplish that.
Most of the international community - the Russians, the Europeans, many Arabs and even the Israelis - are making happy noises about the deal. ''They should be pleased in Jerusalem,'' writes the prominent Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, ''it's been proven that a reliable American [military] option holds deterrence. The Iranian angle is also clear, as is the direction of any future moves of the US and Israel against Tehran.'' 
But before those of us hoping that another useless bloodletting will be avoided pop the champagne, we have to note that the continuing ambiguity serves more than one purpose: apart from providing a way out of military confrontation, it could actually be used to justify a war, by giving the appearance that Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry have exhausted every possibility to pursue peace.
The French draft resolution introduced at the United Nations Security council presents Syria with a military ''Chapter 7'' ultimatum to declare and dismantle its chemical weapons stocks. A resolution in the same tone, designed to ''give the United Nations time to take control of the Syrian government's arsenal of the internationally banned weapons'' (as the New York Times put it), is reportedly in the works in the reluctant US Congress.
While the final texts are anybody's guess at this point, both of these documents are likely to pass now that they are being marketed as measures to avoid war. We should keep a few things in mind for the time after they pass: that Obama threatened to attack Syria with or without them, that such texts can be interpreted very liberally (see UNSCR 1973, which authorized the military intervention in Libya in 2011), and that verifiably removing the entire Syrian chemical stockpile in the midst of a brutal civil war would in practice be a Herculean task that could take years if not decades. 
In other words, the Russian proposal could backfire for the Kremlin and give both Obama and members of the US Congress a way out of their deadlock. Opposition to the war among the American public is so high - recent polls put it at around two-thirds - that even the powerful pro-Israeli lobby has been unable to rally convincingly the representatives to the cause of bombing Syria.
The scary scenario is that for Obama, if populism fails, it could be that perhaps a little congressional community organizing and a few lawyers' tricks would help circumvent the will of the people. From the point of view of congress, one of the representatives herself, Jane Harman, put it best on NBC: "Congress wants this to pass, they just don't want to vote for it."
A lot of it is about what the actual intentions of the White House are. So far, Obama and his people have been keeping whatever cards they may have so close to their chests that observers are often left wondering if their strategy isn't to do exactly the opposite of what they set out to do. 
But the interests of allies in Europe and the Middle East will also influence the decision-making of the Obama administration. The Syrian crisis has brought together an unlikely coalition of Saudis, Turks and Israelis, all on some level rooting for a US intervention in the war-torn country. Each country, of course, has its own mix of reasons to do so, though especially for the Saudis and Israelis Iran is a major consideration.
First of all, there is a chance, however precarious, that a war in Syria would draw the US into a war with Iran. Syria and Iran, after all, have a mutual defense pact. And though Iranian threats have become muted recently,  Iran will face a lot of pressure to respond to an American attack on its ally in some way. In such a situation the probability of a miscalculation or provocation on either side rises and a broader war could start even by mistake.
On the other hand, if Iran sits on the sidelines of an American campaign in Syria, its ally will both be degraded militarily and provided with an excuse to repay in kind in the eventuality of a subsequent attack on the Iranian nuclear program. This would significantly erode the Iranian deterrent against an Israeli attack in particular, though also against an American intervention. The Saudis would be fully on board in either case.
For the Turks it appears that regime change in Syria itself tops other considerations. As Aaron Stein, a Nonproliferation Program Manager at the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, put it in a recent telephone conversation, ''The rhetoric from the [Turkish] prime minister suggests that ... what he is concerned about primarily is ensuring that this is not a limited strike, ie something like 400 cruise missile strikes, but something like Kosovo, where [they are] bombing as long as it takes to ensure that the balance of power on the ground shifts and the rebels are in power and [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad is forced from power.''
Whether a negotiated settlement of the crisis will satisfy all these actors - some rumors go as far as to claim that a deal removing Assad from power is in the works  - remains dubious, and consequently the road ahead remains fraught with major uncertainties. Even the basic facts are hard to come by; amid the circus of diplomacy to which the world has been subjected in the last days, the anticipated report by UN chemical weapons experts, which, an independent expert assured me should have been long ready, has become all but irrelevant.
The fog of war over Syria, where at least 110,000 have died to date, is near-complete. Come diplomacy or air strikes - or anything else, for that matter - there are few signs that the carnage will abate any time soon.