Obama’s swift U-turn on Syria

Is America's shift away from launching strikes on Syria a defeat for President Obama and a victory for Russia? Emily Hohler reports.

The speed of the diplomatic turnaround over Syria has been "truly breathtaking", says The Independent. One minute President Barack Obama was preparing to convince the public and US Congress to support military strikes. The next he was voicing qualified support for a Russian proposal to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control. "In pretty much 24 hours flat, we have gone from the threshold of unilateral US military action and a Cold War-style US-Russia rift to a proposal on which almost everyone can agree."

The proposal is a "life-raft" for Obama, says Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. Last week, Americans were still two to one against the strikes, and all the signs suggested Obama was heading for defeat. Even if he had won, his heart wasn't in it. He only threatened military strikes because he made a declaration a year ago that the use of chemical weapons crossed a red line', and so had to stand by it.

The proposal suits other parties too. If Bashar al-Assad agrees to "banjax" the weapons, he can "dodge the US bullet that was perhaps heading his way". For Russians, there is a "double benefit". First, Vladimir Putin "gets to pose as the global statesman who stayed the hand of the mighty American hyperpower". Second, Russia has long worried about Syria's toxic arsenal falling into opposition jihadist hands should Assad fall.

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Obama's new difficulty is that if this diplomatic path is going to work, Russia and Syria need to believe that his threat to use force is credible, says Ezra Klein in The Washington Post. After all, it was this threat that won the previously "unthinkable": an agreement, in principle, that if the US forswears force, then Syria will sign the treaty against chemical weapons and hand over its stockpile. So Obama still needs to win enough public and congressional support to make his threats credible.

The result was his "odd speech" on Tuesday that had to make the case for war, even as it "pivoted towards" a diplomatic solution. The other point to remember is that even if Assad destroys his chemical weapons, he will keep slaughtering with conventional weapons. Obama's administration hopes this will open negotiating space for a deal to end the conflict, "but there's no guarantee of that".

There is "ample room" for scepticism over any UN resolution too, says Charles Clover in the Financial Times. The chemical weapons are located in dozens of sites that will be hard to find during a civil war. "The Assads are masters of lies, who have obstructed all UN missions so far." Nor is anyone even certain whether Moscow is sincere, adds Edward Luce, also in the FT. For the next few days, "Obama's fortunes are in Moscow's hands". He should use the time to "work on a strategy he can explain to the US public. On Tuesday he was unable to do that."

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 


On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.