Leon Aron | Russia
From the outset, the Kremlin’s aim in the Syrian conflict has been to strengthen its domestic legitimacy and to bolster its international repute by “standing up to the United States.” This comes at a time when the regime’s popularity is sagging under the weight of corruption, the economy is bordering on recession, trust in Vladimir Putin is plummeting, and there is suddenly a major political challenge from the charismatic (and vehemently anti-Putin) lawyer Alexei Navalny, who garnered close to a third of the votes in Moscow’s mayoral elections last Sunday.
The overarching imperative of Mr. Putin’s foreign policy has been to preclude regime change—in Russia or anywhere else. This goal acquires particular urgency when a threat to an authoritarian regime occurs on former Soviet territory, which Russia considers its sphere of influence, or among Soviet or Russian client states.
In this context, President Obama’s speech and the U.S. policy that seems to be emerging from it can only be interpreted by Mr. Putin as exceeding his most optimistic hopes.
Russia’s efforts to resolve the Syria chemical-weapons crisis put the White House in an awkward spot, says WSJ’s Carol E. Lee. The diplomacy delays any military strikes and places Vladimir Putin in the driver’s seat, but also allows Obama to say he is pursuing all options.
Domestically, this turn of events has bolstered Mr. Putin’s image as someone who not only has unflinchingly confronted the U.S.—still the nation most feared and respected by Russians—but forced it to change its course. Internationally, it has established Mr. Putin as a kind of go-to broker who has scuttled a seemingly imminent military strike by the U.S.
Most importantly, from Moscow’s perspective, Mr. Obama’s move has delayed or perhaps eliminated what Russia sees as the worst possible outcome: regime change in a faithful major client in a geostrategically crucial region. Whether with vodka or Champagne, they ought to be celebrating in the Kremlin.
—Mr. Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Kenneth M. Pollack | Iran
Iran is the country whose reaction to Mr. Obama’s Syria decision we probably care most about—and the one whose reaction will be hardest to discern. The Iranian regime is opaque, fragmented, Byzantine. And it often reaches conclusions that no American—no Westerner, no foreigner—would expect.
That said, there are some things we can be reasonably confident of. First, the Iranians are no doubt relieved that the U.S. is not going to strike the Syrian regime now and might never do so. Even if the attack were “unbelievably small,” no country likes to get bombed. It is always dangerous and humiliating, and in a situation like that of the Syrian regime—besieged by rebel forces and suffering from its own mistakes—even a small strike might create big problems. Much better for Bashar al-Assad that it never happen, and given how the Iranians have lashed themselves to his ship of state, better for them too.
Second, the virulent war-weariness evident in the congressional vote count and the public opinion polls that lay behind it probably did not increase Tehran’s fear of an American strike. But it is impossible to know if it will actually cause them to dismiss that fear, as many proponents of a strike have argued.
The Iranians rarely read things the way that we expect them to, and one thing we do know is that Iranian leaders believe they are far more important and powerful than the Syrians. The Iranians might have dismissed an American strike on Syria as something the U.S. was willing to do to the weak, trifling Syrians, but would never dare with mighty Iran. Certainly, Mr. Obama’s failure to enforce his chemical-weapons redline after earlier Syrian infractions does not seem to have had any impact on Iranian thinking about whether we would enforce the red line regarding their nuclear program.
Illustration by Stephen Webster; Photothek via Getty Images (Obama); Getty Images (globe); AFP/Getty Images (Putin); Media Office of Douma City/AP Photo (gas attack); Reuters (Syria protest, gas mask); RU24 via Reuters (Assad)
Finally, it is possible that the administration’s mishandling of the crisis, and the president’s unwillingness to take dramatic action without congressional backing, could unnerve Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, who appears to want to strike a nuclear deal with the U.S. Mr. Rouhani has already signaled that he needs the U.S. to act quickly and decisively to allow him to hold off the challenge of Iranian hard-liners trying to quash his initiative. If Mr. Rouhani reads Washington’s Syria performance as a sign that Mr. Obama can’t be counted on to do what is necessary when he faces difficult foreign policy challenges, that might make him less willing to fight the battles with his own domestic foes.
—Mr. Pollack is the author, most recently, of “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy” and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Elizabeth C. Economy | China
Mr. Obama’s Syria debate with himself, Congress and the American public marked open season on the U.S. in China. No matter which path Mr. Obama pursued—a military strike or adoption of the Russian plan to put Syrian chemical-weapons stocks under international control—Chinese analysts claimed that he had weakened his presidency and American standing in the world.
In discussing the military option, the Wenzhou City News, for example, argued that the president was in a no-win situation: If Congress vetoed the proposal but Obama still pursued war, the opposition would “bind his feet” on other initiatives; if Congress vetoed a military strike and Obama complied, the “president’s credibility and America’s influence” would “take a hit”; and if Congress supported the president, then Obama would earn himself “infamy” in public opinion, which did not support military action.
President Obama’s decision to delay a congressional vote on military action in favor of the Russian plan prompted criticism in China’s Global Times: Washington, said an editorial, has “lost its sense of direction in the Middle East,” and the “Kremlin’s proposal, resolute and tactical, dealt a blow at Washington’s Achilles heels [sic].”
It is hard to know whether such commentary is representative of Chinese popular opinion. Its real purpose is to serve the broader political and strategic objectives of the Chinese government. Focusing on U.S. weakness underscores an impression of U.S. decline and the onset of a power transition in the international system, something that Beijing has actively sought to promote over the past few years.
Harping on U.S. indecisiveness and Russian leadership also masks China’s inability to find its own diplomatic legs. Beijing has yet to play a significant role—much less lead—in formulating or implementing a response to a global challenge. Beijing’s observations about U.S. indecisiveness say at least as much about the state of Chinese diplomacy as American.
—Ms. Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Martin Kramer | Israel
What would the Middle East look like during a possible Iran crisis? Israelis got a preview this past week, and they didn’t like what they saw.
It wasn’t Mr. Obama’s reluctance to get involved in Syria’s civil war. Israel shares the view that placing bets in Syria is risky, and it hasn’t urged the U.S. to do so. Yes, it would like Syria out of Iran’s orbit, but Mr. Assad respects Israeli power. So Israel hasn’t played favorites, preferring instead to draw its own “red lines.” It doesn’t want al Qaeda on its Syrian border, and it won’t tolerate leaks of sophisticated weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah.
What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.
Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?
Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.
—Mr. Kramer is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.
Josef Joffe | Europe
In Europe, Clausewitz is either dying (Britain and France) or dead (Germany and the rest). Recall the famous counsel of the Prussian general: “War is the continuation of policy with other means”—that is, with force.
Germany, the loser of two world wars, cut this seamless web in 1945, followed by all those former warrior nations from Spain to Sweden. Force as tool of statecraft? Heaven forfend! Europe shall be an “empire of peace.” Britain and France, ex-imperial powers both, are going down the same road. David Cameron was trashed by Parliament when he asked for a war resolution on Syria. France’s François Hollande would suffer the same fate if he went to the National Assembly.
In his heart, Mr. Obama also would like to ditch Clausewitz, as he signaled in his Tuesday speech. He would like to turn the U.S. into an XXL medium-power. He wants to unshoulder the burden of global leadership and to drag the U.S. out of harm’s way. As in Europe, his priority is welfare rather than warfare—”nation-building at home.” If it has to be force, it must be on the cheap—”limited” and “narrow.” Mr. Obama is probably as grateful as Mr. Assad for the reprieve cooked up by the Russians, who want to save the despot at all cost. Ms. Merkel and Messrs. Cameron and Hollande are delighted as well. There is now no shame in hanging back.
There is just one problem, and it is bigger than to strike or not. Or to extract well-hidden chemical weapons from a war zone the size of Oklahoma. The U.S. is not an XXL medium-power but the housekeeper of the world. If it outsources the job, there is nobody else—not Europe, Russia or China. And the vandals are watching.
—Mr. Joffe, a fellow of the Hoover Institution and the Institute for International Studies, teaches U.S. foreign policy at Stanford. His “The Myth of America’s Decline” will be published this fall by Norton.
Marc Lynch | The Middle East
Mr. Obama’s remarks on Syria had little resonance with Arab audiences, who puzzled over why death by chemical weapons moved him so much more than did the deaths and suffering of countless others. Leaders in the Gulf states and parts of the badly fractured Syrian opposition fumed over what they saw as an American failure to act. But they don’t speak for the wider Arab public, which is deeply divided over Syria.
Public sympathy with the Syrian rebels is strong among most Sunnis in the Gulf states, but many vocal Islamist backers of the Syrian opposition have gone silent as discussion turned to U.S. intervention. Their hatred of Mr. Assad does not translate into support for the U.S. military. Beyond the Gulf, reaction is even more mixed. Many Egyptians have denounced American intervention, seeing the Syrian opposition as aligned with their own recently toppled Muslim Brotherhood government. Shiite leaders in Iraq have warned against a U.S. attack, but even leading Sunni figures have spoken out. Jordan, with its leaders frightened by the potential fallout of a war, has disavowed any use of its territory for a strike.
European Pressphoto AgencyA protester in Amman, Jordan, carries a flag with a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sept. 9. The Arab public is deeply divided over Syria.
Mr. Obama’s push for a limited military response, followed by his turn to diplomacy, does reinforce one of the most prevalent Arab tropes on his presidency: beautiful words that are not backed by action. The lack of follow-through on his June 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslims of the world and his failed attempt to get an Israeli settlement freeze established this reputation early on, and little has changed since. Many Arabs desperately want the Syrian conflict to end. They fear its growing extremism and are horrified by its terrible human toll. But the one thing that seems to unite them, at least beyond the palaces of the Gulf, is their desire to see the U.S. stay far, far away.
—Mr. Lynch is associate professor of political science and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.
Steven A. Cook | Turkey
The Syrian civil war is the greatest strategic challenge for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party since it came to power in November 2002. Turkey’s Syria policy has evolved from encouraging Mr. Assad to undertake reforms to pushing for the overthrow of the Syrian regime.
Steven A. Cook
The Turks deserve credit for the way they have handled the flow of refugees across their border and for their effort to persuade the international community to respond more forcefully to the civil war. But Turkish policy has been long on rhetoric and short on action. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to convince the U.S. and other Western powers to intervene, but only with U.N., NATO and Arab League approval. Now Turkey seems to have dropped those preconditions and signaled its support for an American strike.
The diplomatic process that has unfolded over the past week has put the Turks in a difficult position. President Abdullah Gül praised the idea of placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control but bemoaned the Russian proposal because it fails to address the underlying civil war. The Turks can see what is coming, and they don’t like it: an agreement between Washington and Moscow that relieves pressure on Mr. Assad, allowing him to conduct the war without the threat of U.S. intervention. This would leave the Turks to contend with more refugees and more violence on its doorstep. But there is little Turkey can do to alter these circumstances. Left with few options, Ankara will default to what it has already been doing: supporting factions within the Syrian opposition, providing refugee relief and advocating for international intervention to bring the conflict to an end.
—Mr. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.