Until the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, the administration was not primarily concerned with chemical weapons. It was concerned with doing whatever it could -- short of intervening militarily -- to see to it that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad either step down or be forced out. In 2011, Obama said: "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." And, a year later: "I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down." And in May at a news conference with the Turkish prime minister: "We both agree that Assad needs to go. ... That is the only way we're going to resolve this crisis. And we're going to keep working for a Syria that is free from Assad's tyranny."
That goal is now dead. The new Putin-Obama compact is a boon to Assad in that it brings him into the so-called international community America has spent the last two years trying to kick him out of. This "represents an astonishing victory for the Assad regime," writes Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation). So long as Assad only massacres his own people -- including children -- with old-fashioned weapons, he's immune to international force. Worse, Assad is now our partner because getting his WMD is now more important than getting rid of him. We've gone from siding with the rebels to acting like a boxing ref with no investment in who wins so long as neither side strikes any low blows.
Obviously, in reality, the Obama's short-term goal was to avoid getting into an unpopular war precipitated by his own ill-considered statements or being humiliated by a congressional no vote precipitated by his decision to punt the issue to Capitol Hill. But what made that goal achievable was the curse of chemical weapons.