President Barack Obama, who brandished a massive sword over Bashar Assad's head in recent weeks, returned it to its sheath Wednesday. In due course he may draw it again to strike the Syrian regime, but the chance of this is diminishing.
Obama realized that the saber-rattling isn't that effective when the sword he is brandishing is a double-edged one. Without solid support from inside and out, implementing the military option could do more harm than good. All the more so since the sword was presented in advance as a weapon not intended to decapitate Assad, but only to punish him for using chemical weapons against civilians and to send a message about America's resolve at enforcing a behavior code.
Obama's speech to the American nation, which turned against him across the board – from the Congress to the Pentagon, from the masses to his own wife – marked more than anything else the limits of military intervention. This intervention was ultimately suspended - at least until a new speech. Thus, a limited strike, from afar, without boots on the ground and without any intention of toppling Assad, lest the responsibility for managing the chaos in Damascus be placed on Washington, was aborted. Due to the objections to an operation of such limited scope, one which Obama was dragged into and one which contradicts the platform he had back when he was a senator, the president jumped at the diplomatic opportunity offered by the Russians. There's nothing wrong with that – any plan to solve the crisis must be agreed upon, in broad terms, by the leading powers.
The U.S. president's general direction is commendable – preferring diplomatic means over military ones. If Assad's chemical weapons are subjected to international inspection and gradually dismantled, then the main goal of the Americans will be achieved, with even greater efficiency than through a military operation. A strike would hit those responsible for using the weapons, but would not touch the chemical warfare stockpile itself, which could then be dispersed and harm the Syrian people.
The combination of contained military power and diplomatic leverage, exercised mainly by Assad's chief patron Russian President Vladimir Putin, is more practical than a military strike with no strategic follow-up plan.
It is also a lesson that can be applied to the Iranian nuclear issue. A broad international front – American, Russian and Chinese, without the prominence of Israel – must set realistic, not messianic goals and do so without the urge to pull the trigger, if it is to prod the Iranian leadership into making sober decisions.