In the next few hours, we should know whether the agreement to cease hostilities in Syria, negotiated by Washington and Moscow, has the slightest chance of being enforced. And what if it isn’t? The U.S. is promising consequences. “Anyone who thinks there isn’t impunity [to violating this agreement is making a serious mistake],” declared John Kerry, the top American diplomat, in front of a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday. Far from making Vladimir Putin tremble, this warning must have made him smile, because it illustrates the collapse of American diplomacy: Many words, few actions and words which no longer scare many people – especially not the head of the Kremlin.


“If you cock that pistol, you have to be ready to fire it,” is how Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense, summarized this American collapse in a recent interview with the news website Business Insider. The military metaphor is from the man who led the Pentagon under George W. Bush and later when Barack Obama referred to the famous “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria, which was transgressed without consequence by the Assad regime in August 2013. “The rest of the world must know that when the president of the United States draws a red line, that it is dangerous, if not fatal, to cross it,” says Robert Gates, for whom Obama’s last-minute backing down “hurt the credibility of the president of the United States” well beyond the Middle East.

From Washington to the United Nations via various foreign capitals, many are describing this episode as a “strategic error” with devastating consequences. “When history is written, we will realize that this was a turning point not only in the Middle East crisis, but also for Ukraine, Crimea and the world,” declared Laurent Fabius 10 days ago, shortly after leaving his job as French foreign minister. A Western diplomat serving at the U.N. added, “America’s power relies on the threat of force. If this threat no longer exists, diplomacy will become a game of concessions. And Putin has understood this admirably.”*

From the annexation of Crimea six months after the sarin gas massacre in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, to the air strikes in Syria in September, Russia has not stopped asserting its power. “Putin is the first leader since Stalin to expand Russia’s territory,” America’s director of national intelligence lamented before Congress recently. “We are being humiliated. We’ve lost our strategic foothold, and we’ve abdicated our leadership,” former Ambassador Nicholas Burns told The Washington Post.

Reviled by the Republicans and roughed up by his allies and his own party, Obama is sweeping his critics aside. “It’s not a competition between me and Putin,” he retorted to a journalist who asked him if he felt “cheated” by the recent intensification in Russian air strikes in Syria, particularly in Aleppo. “Putin may think he is ready to invest in a permanent occupation of Syria, but it will be very expensive,” Obama added.

Bad Hand

For months, the White House has been banking on Russia ending up getting bogged down in the Syrian quagmire. But for now, this analysis has turned out to be wrong. In the semblance of a diplomatic process currently in progress led on the American side by eternal optimist John Kerry, the U.S. has clearly been dealt the bad hand. According to Republican Sen. John McCain, Putin practices “diplomacy in the service of military aggression [...] Common sense will not end the conflict in Syria. That takes leverage.”

Elected in 2008 on the promise of American withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has chosen to keep the U.S. distanced from the Syrian conflict, with the exception of air strikes against the Islamic State. But for many observers, the real explanation behind his reluctance can be found in the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Obama considers his main diplomatic success.

“Washington allowed this descent into chaos, despite its repeatedly proclaimed policy of removing Assad and aiding the moderate opposition, because to do anything meaningful to advance its policy would have endangered the precious nuclear negotiations with Iran,” says John Bolton, former ambassador to the U.N. now working at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, in an opinion piece.

Realistic and prudent in the eyes of some, cynical in the eyes of others, Obama has decided that the cost of inaction in Syria is less for the U.S. than that of action. No doubt he had not expected America’s power to weaken to such an extent. Nor did he expect the wave of migration which is destabilizing its European allies.

Would a change of direction today, as Secretary of State Kerry implied this week, citing a mysterious “Plan B,” be a sensible decision if the ceasefire fails? Probably not, the U.N. diplomat believes. “None of Obama’s advisers have managed to persuade him to intervene in Syria. He has his own thought process and he won’t change it,” the diplomat said.* Except, perhaps, if there is a very deadly attack by the Islamic State group on American soil — a threat that the American intelligence services are taking very seriously.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the source of this quote could not be independently verified.