Barack Obama owes Vladimir Putin. Big time. That's the only conclusion one can draw from the president's nationally televised address on Syria on Tuesday evening. In it, Obama talked tough, highlighting the need to hold the Assad regime to account for its atrocities. But he also made clear that plans for U.S. military action have been deferred, perhaps even tabled, pending the results of Russia's plan to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control — a proposal that Damascus has hastily accepted.
That must be a relief for the White House, which has spent most of the past week puzzling over how to walk back its hastily-articulated commitment to punitive military action against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Putin's proposal effectively allows the administration to avoid a deeply unpopular military option, while maintaining the notion that the use of force is still on the table at some future time if Syria steps out of line again.
But like most Faustian bargains, Obama is liable to soon learn that it comes with a price.
First, under the Russian proposal, the stability of the Assad regime is assured. That's a major victory for Moscow, which has assiduously attempted to keep the Syrian dictator in office despite widening opposition to his rule both at home and abroad. It also preserves vital Russian interests, since Assad's Syria is a major client state, as well as the home of Russia's Mediterranean flotilla (which has been housed in the Syrian port city of Tartus since the 1970s).
Second, the Russian plan means that the Syrian civil war is bound to get worse. Syria's rebels, seeing the Assad regime constrained in terms of weaponry and hampered by international oversight, will undoubtedly press their advantage. The result will be more and wider bloodshed, and a humanitarian crisis even graver than the one that exists currently.
All too soon, then, the president is likely to discover that the hard choices he has been contemplating on Syria haven't been resolved, they've only been deferred. And, quite possibly, they have gotten much, much harder in the process.