President Obama’s speech on Syria on Tuesday evening was a curious affair, a call to go to war that ended by saying: yes, but not now. He might as well have said, “But as for the future, if ignored, I shall do such things as to make the world tremble!” A perfect example of how to say yes and no in the same speech.

Barack Obama should be thanking Vladimir Putin for getting him out of a dilemma that would have ruined his presidency. His attack on Syria, as it was (and is) programmed, and if Congress had voted (or does yet vote) in favor of it, would have been or will be no “shot across the bow.” The plan is to “degrade” Syria’s entire military and supporting infrastructure, so as to tip the civil war’s balance — as Baghdad was “degraded” in 2003. It would make the civil war far worse, with thousands more dead, by triggering a rebel offensive, covertly supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to take Damascus (or its ruins).

This risks instigating a much bigger sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, capable of extending to Iraq and Iran, and by way of Iran’s involvement, possibly bringing in Israel. In that case, there could be tens of thousands of “boots on the ground,” among them American boots, notwithstanding airy and irresponsible promises by Obama administration officials.

Mr. Putin currently offers Obama the attractive role of a warrior chief whose threats so frightened the world as to force the sequestering and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. It has brought a wide international and U.N. intervention potentially capable of forcing a settlement conference (“Geneva II”), possibly halting the civil war and its multiple threats to the region. Mr. Putin himself chooses to play the peacemaker. And why not?

As Russia would have to be one of the guarantors of such a settlement, as the United States would insist on being, and as Russia would also have to stand guarantee for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, Moscow would automatically provide Syria with deterrence against Israeli nuclear blackmail and that conventional threat from Israel which the chemical weapons were manufactured to deter. Russia’s enlarged political presence and guarantee of Syria’s neutralization would also secure Lebanon. Both results are highly desirable.

Finally, its presence would implicitly deter Iranian threats to Israel and the Israeli/American threat to Iran, the other smoldering bed of potential war in the Middle East. This would obviously displease Israeli hawks, whose ultimate aim is the elimination of Iran as the most powerful Muslim state in the region, but it might also reassure the Israeli public, lifting their most important security anxiety. It might even lead Israeli (and American) elites to place more value than they do now upon pursuing the ways of peace instead of war. As for the effects upon the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, that is a discussion for another day.

As for the fate of Syria itself, it is worth looking into the past in search of a way to ameliorate the present and future miseries of its people and deal with their communal hatreds. The former French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, has recently condemned both French and American commitments to military strikes to “punish” President Bashar Assad as a hopelessly misguided and simple-minded (my word, not his) action guaranteed to make things worse.

What is a realistic (“realpolitik” is his word) alternative? To recognize that the “Greater Syria” that the Western allies abstracted in 1918, under local pressures, from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Levant, put incompatible elements together. There was an Arab Muslim majority, the Alawites (a Muslim sect, some 10 percent of the total population), who under the Assad family have governed the country in recent decades, major Christian communities of great antiquity, a community of Druze (an offshoot of Islam) and a significant Kurd population.

The allies made what now is Lebanon into a Maronite Christian state (the Maronites are united with Roman Catholicism, and France has considered itself their protectors since the Crusades) but with a Muslim minority that in recent times has become the voting majority, a source of permanent tension.

Villepin argues that it is no longer feasible to maintain Syria in its present borders, and that an at least temporary partition is necessary in which each of these groups can possess an autonomous and secure existence. This would have to be accomplished as a part of a long-proposed but American-blocked peace conference under the auspices of the U.N. It is urgent to exploit the present crisis to find a settlement among the ethnic and religious communities of present-day Syria, as a means to a larger peace.

There are plenty of people in the Washington foreign policy elite, as well as the Obama administration, who will be horrified at the notion of introducing Russia into the Middle East under international sponsorship. But Russia has already introduced itself into the only presently recognizable solution, if outside military “punishment” and consequent expanded war are to be avoided.

The Middle East, under the burdens of American military interventions, has since the 1950s suffered heavy-handed and disastrously unsuccessful — indeed destructive, as Iraq today attests — policies of American intervention and vain “democratization.” This cannot continue. The Washington community seems incapable of recognizing this, but the U.S., in this region, has made itself hated and feared. It is incapable of generating generally acceptable geopolitical solutions.

To use a word popular among Washington’s war-hawks, it no longer has “credibility.”

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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