Syrian President Bashar Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad giving an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia in Damascus, August 26, 2013. Photo by AFP
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There is a famously absurd scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which a spaceship with two one-eyed aliens swoops down on Jesus’ Jerusalem, just in time to catch Brian in midair as he plummets to his death from a tall tower. The aliens are just as aghast at their guest as he is terrified of them, and after a short jaunt in outer space they return him to the exact same spot that they found him, disappearing again for the rest of the film.

On Monday, it was the Russians who were playing the role of “deus ex machina,” appearing out of nowhere to save Obama at the very last minute from what seemed to be his certain defeat in Congress and his no less spectacular crash in American public opinion. Suddenly, the plot twisted, the storyline changed, the main characters assumed completely different roles: Obama the hapless schlemiel was cast as a clever Machiavellian; Vladimir Putin metamorphosed from ruthless Rasputin to a knight on a white horse –albeit with his shirt on –and Bashar Assad, one must concede, seemed surprisingly solid and steady in his interview with Charley Rose.

It was hard to tell whether the new Russian initiative to defuse the Middle East crisis by seizing control of Syria’s chemical arsenal was really an outcome of Secretary of State’s John Kerry’s random slip of the tongue, as analysts first suggested, or of extended presidential conversations with Putin, as Obama seemed to imply. What was clearer is that the American attitude towards the Russian proposal changed dramatically once the White House realized that it was manna from heaven: from a transparent exercise in stalling as it was dubbed in the morning, it became a “potential breakthrough” by mid-afternoon, when Obama gave his serial network interviews.

Obama now has time to regroup and to take another crack at persuading Congress and convincing the public to approve of his plans to strike Syria. In the complex labyrinth of internal contradictions that has characterized the crisis from the outset, Obama ascribed the Syrian turnaround to the U.S. threat to attack him; this led several Congressmen to reassess their opposition and to claim that in that case, perhaps it’s a good idea to support Obama and thus make his threat more credible. If they do that, of course, they will be giving Obama the freedom of action to launch the strike that they are desperately trying to avert.

Many Administration officials will no doubt share the widespread Israeli assessment that the chances that Assad will voluntarily and unilaterally hand over his large stockpiles of chemical weapons range from slim to nonexistent. One must take into account, however, that Moscow may soon become enamored with its newfound position as indispensable mediator and popular peacemaker, and that its ambition to achieve a breakthrough will grow. Putin, one assumes, is better equipped to talk to Assad in a language that the Syrian leader comprehends.

Jerusalem, of course, will keep a wary and suspicious eye on the diplomatic maneuvers that will take place over the next few days. First of all, with the Administration embracing a diplomatic dialogue, Israel and its supporters and lobbyists are in danger of being stranded and depicted as frustrated warmongers.

Israel will also be unhappy with Assad suddenly being cast as a legitimate interlocutor rather than an ostracized dictator, with the “constructive” role that Tehran might suddenly play in defusing the Syrian crisis and with the risk that Russian success in Syria may lead it to seek a greater role in other peacemaking endeavors as well. “With the food comes the appetite”, as a famous originally French saying goes

Worse, perhaps, is the danger that Assad will try to walk in the footsteps of his onetime Ba’athist neighbor, Saddam Hussein, who, in the days of diplomatic maneuvers before the first Gulf War, created the infamous “linkage” between his withdrawal from Kuwait in late 1990 and Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian territories.

Having justified his huge reserves of chemical weapons for years as Syria’s strategic response to Israel’s alleged nuclear stockpile - the so-called “Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb” gambit – it will also come as no surprise if Assad demands that Israel also be compelled to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it hasn’t, and to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well.

Such a demand will most likely garner sympathy for Assad in the Arab, Muslim and Third World and could go a long way to resuscitate his tarnished image in the Arab street. Judging by his composure in the Charlie Rose interview, Assad should not be taken for granted: he seems to have learned a thing or two from his father Hafez, who was a world grandmaster at political poker and strategic brinkmanship.

Obama, for his part, seemed relaxed and even slightly bemused in his television interviews on Monday night. The president’s many critics and detractors will ascribe his calm demeanor to their belief that he had neither the will nor the intention to attack Syria in the first place.

But Obama probably knows that like Brian, he may soon find himself more or less in the same place as he was before the Russian offer changed everything. The only thing that’s changed is the knowledge that strange things can happen, and that, in any case, it’s always best to look on the bright side of life.

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