A Russian-brokered proposal to place Syria's chemical arsenal under international control for eventual destruction would resonate far beyond Damascus and highlight the stakes at play among Bashar Assad's friends, foes and nervous bystanders struggling with the complexities of Syria's civil war.
A look at the possible winners and losers under Moscow's 11th-hour plan:
Syria's main backers, Iran and Russia, have strongly opposed Western military retaliation over a suspected sarin gas attack Aug. 21 — questioning the West's contention that Assad's forces were to blame, and warning of an even wider conflict in the Middle East. Both countries would certainly emerge claiming victory in the latest brinkmanship.
For Moscow, it means recognition of its role as an international mediator that can do more than just try to block Western initiatives at the U.N. Security Council. It also drives home the importance of Russian participation in any future efforts to negotiate an end to Syria's civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Syria remains Russia's main foothold in the Middle East and an important Mediterranean port.
Iran has even more on the line. It depends on Syria as its linchpin Arab world partner and a pathway to Iran's proxy militia, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Anything that could weaken Assad's hold on power is seen with deep unease in Tehran. But while the Islamic Republic often trumpets its loyalty, it has gradually put forth the idea that the leader is expendable but his power structure is not. Iran has proposed peace initiatives — rejected by rebels — that would allow elections that could oust Assad but leave intact key elements of his Iran-friendly rule.
Assad's choices bring together survival and surrender.
The Russian plan would allow the Syrian leader to avoid the damage that U.S.-led strikes, no matter how narrow and limited, would certainly inflict on a military already stretched thin and under tremendous strain from a more than two-year civil war. It also would block a possible stepped up rebel offensive linked to any Western military action.
Yet Assad would be forced to relinquish his chemical arms stocks and open the door to possible deeper international probes into the extent of his wider arsenal as inspectors seek chemical stores. The Syrian opposition accuses the regime of using such weapons on several occasions, but the casualties from such purported attacks have been a mere fraction of the total death toll in the conflict.
Obama led calls for military action in partnership with European allies, but also with the knowledge that support was weak at home for another U.S. strike in the Middle East.
The Russian plan provides Washington with something of a dignified retreat. Obama can claim that the threat of U.S.-led attacks had a double effect: Forcing Assad to promise to give up his chemical weapons and admit to the world he possessed such an arsenal. The White House also can say its muscle prompted Russia into quick action to move its plan beyond just words.
Since the Russian proposal emerged earlier this week, Obama has been in near constant contact with French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who also would be handed the equivalent of a political escape clause after being deeply embarrassed last month when Parliament rejected his call to back the possible military strikes.
On its surface, the deal was aimed at providing protection for the opposition by preventing chemical attacks against them. But rebel factions are left potentially dismayed that, after more than two years, the West would not commit to even limited military strikes against Assad. The main opposition group had been hoping the chemical weapons allegations would prove a tipping point to provoke strikes from abroad that would shift the balance in the war of attrition between rebels and Assad's forces. The Syrian National Coalition has dismissed the Assad government's turnaround as a maneuver to escape punishment for a crime against humanity.
The Russian plan will most likely force the rebels to increasingly look to key backers in the Western-backed Persian Gulf states, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as their most reliable and predictable backers. Delaying or calling off military strikes is also likely to be met with disapproval by Washington's Arab allies in the Gulf, which have been funneling money and arms shipments to the rebels.
Though Israel was among those most supportive of a strike on Syria — and some Israeli politicians have already voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of Russia's proposal — Israel appeared generally pleased with the emerging deal.
The government hasn't commented publicly, but officials speaking anonymously to Israeli media said Syria's agreement to give up its chemical weapons is a direct result of the U.S. threat and sends a strong message to Iran. Israel hopes that just as Syria folded when faced with military might, so will Iran and ultimately abandon its nuclear program.