A useful rule when assessing diplomatic agreements is that they represent no more than the balance of forces at the moment they are signed. This is the only certainty. Everything else –grandiose proclamations of peace or the transformation of a troubled region – are contingent. The balance of forces may change, or the interests of one or more party may alter.
The framework agreement on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, signed in Geneva last week in an explosion of diplomatic activity, should be understood in this light. It was signed because it suited the interests of the leaders of the US and Russia, and a surprisingly large number of their allies.
It rescued the vacillating Barack Obama from a losing battle with Congress to approve a limited strike against Syria; it cast the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, as an advocate for peace at a time when Mr Obama, the Nobel peace prize laureate, was threatening war; it spared President Bashar Al Assad a missile strike, though at the cost of having to promise – at the behest of Russia – to remove all the chemical weapons his father built up as a counterweight to Israel; Iran, for whom chemical weapons are abhorrent after thousands of its soldiers died in Iraqi gas attacks, was able to welcome an agreement which averted a missile strike that might have shone an unwelcome light on its support for the Assad regime.
That much is clear. As for what this agreement will mean in practice, there have been as many projections as there are commentators in Washington, where armchair strategists have multiplied just as America’s stomach to use force has weakened.
Among these analyses the realpolitik view seems to be gaining ground: President Al Assad is now assured of survival, since the peak of western pressure to attack has passed and the removal of his chemical arsenal will be a task of years. As the rebel factions can never be united, the task of western diplomacy is to blow as much smoke as possible to disguise its weakness, while the Russians restrain themselves from bellowing, “I told you so”.
Mr Obama still insists that his goal is to “transition out” the Syrian leader. But the logic of realpolitik and the brutality of Washington politics suggest that Mr Obama will be fatally damaged by giving Russia a veto over the Syria dossier. He will become a lame duck, at home and abroad, two years earlier than is normal for a second-term president.
As for the battlefield, optimistic scenarios are hard to find. The best outcome would be that the civil war is frozen, with the country divided for the foreseeable future into regime-controlled areas in the centre and around Damascus and rebel strongholds in the north, east and parts of the south. Lebanon was similarly partitioned during the 1975-90 civil war.
Even more alarming for the western camp is the so-called “Awakening” scenario. The Geneva agreement and the cancellation of the US missile attack has crystallised a view among jihadist factions that Washington now prefers the stability of Mr Al Assad in power to the uncertainty of victory by the radicals.
They now see American support for the western-backed Free Syrian Army as an attempt to repeat the “Awakening” movement in Iraq, in which tribes rallied to the US to drive out the Al Qaeda elements from Anbar Province in 2006. Serious clashes have already broken out near the Turkish border between jihadists and western-backed factions. These could lead to full-scale war in which the FSA would be the likely loser.
The most optimistic scenario is the “grand bargain” in which the US and Russia, taking advantage of the election of the apparently more conciliatory President Hassan Rouhani, end the Syrian war and defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis together. In exchange for allowing the Assad clan to leave power, Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium under international supervision up to a specified level. The problem with this is that, while goodwill is rising between the US and Iranian presidents, there is no sign that the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards are contemplating such a strategic retreat.
The counter-argument to the Obama-as-lame-duck scenario is that Mr Putin will have to pay dearly for his diplomatic triumph. He must now take responsibility for the actions of his unpredictable Syrian ally. If the Syrian regime creates obstacles to the chemical weapons destruction, as it surely will, the onus will be on Russia to bring it to heel, thus forcing the two powers to work together, as they did to end the Bosnian crisis.
Among these various scenarios is one which does not catch the imagination of the commentators. That is that Syria’s entire stock of chemical weapons are mapped, secured and destroyed amid a civil war. The cost, complexity and danger of this operation are staggering, though that is not to say that it is impossible.
Trying to predict the effect of diplomatic agreements is a necessary exercise. In 1919 John Maynard Keynes, the economist, understood that the Versailles Peace Treaty which ended the First World War was too harsh on Germany. He correctly predicted it would lead to another war.
The agreement reached in Geneva between John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, is so unexpected that it is harder to parse. The best way to understand it is to see it as having dealt the major players a new hand of cards.
No one was happy with their existing hands, so the new deal was welcome. But any arrangement which is open to so many conflicting interpretations is likely to provide more surprises than certainty.
Any progress will be transactional, meaning that the Geneva framework will have meaning only so long as both sides see benefit in it. In other words, what lies in store is a long hard slog, with no certainty at the end, beyond be probability that the civil war will continue, and with it the tragedy of millions of Syrians who have lost their homes.
On Twitter: @aphilps