Opinions writer

Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is jimhoagland@washpost.com.

President Bashar al-Assad’s promise to dismantle his regime’s chemical arsenal inflicts greater strategic damage on Syria’s rebel forces than those weapons could ever achieve on the battlefield. He has drawn the world’s attention — and the hopes of increased U.S. support — away from the opposition’s grim struggle to liberate their Arab nation.

In 43 years of their family’s dictatorial rule, the Assads have shown they will do whatever it takes to survive. If survival requires barbaric savagery, they will unleash it. If it means placating a greater power and taking their gains in intangibles, that, too, will work. This defining characteristic of the father, Hafez, has at last emerged in the once seemingly more mild-mannered son, Bashar.

“Other nations should never mess with the Assads,” I was told when I arrived in Beirut as The Post’s Middle East correspondent two years after Hafez had seized full power in 1970. “They will do things to you you won’t do to them.”

I experienced the other side of the Assad coin in 1987, when I was hurriedly invited to Damascus to conduct an interview with Hafez, who had become convinced that Ronald Reagan was about to punish Damascus for its role in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and of a U.S. Marine military barracks in separate attacks in Beirut in the 1980s.

The elder Assad spent three hours explaining his newly found hopes for good relations with Washington, and whatever crisis had been looming, in fact or in his imagination, seemed to dissipate shortly afterward.

The pressure that made Bashar make nice was more diffuse, stemming only in part from President Obama’s well-publicized potential military strike on Syria, which was eventually shelved. My guess is that growing Russian apprehension at the Syrian war slipping out of control led the Kremlin to lean heavily on Assad to give up his chemical arsenal.

That would be a silver lining in this very dark Syrian cloud. It would suggest that there are limits to Vladimir Putin’s vindictive desire to pay back the Obama administration for opposing his return to the Russian presidency, ignoring him on Libya and — in his mind — other festering wounds.

It is, of course, supremely easy for journalists to overinterpret personal relations and feelings as causes for big events in international relations. It helps make the story more human and compelling.

But the Syrian crisis has put a bright spotlight on the importance of personal relationships in capitals around the world, not just in Damascus and Moscow. It has been the first exercise for Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in bringing together their differing goals and visions on foreign policy and then urgently applying the hybrid result.

Obama’s underlying and strong reluctance to provide meaningful military support to the Syrian Opposition Coalition has been clear for at least a year. Last autumn, as the rebels made serious battlefield gains, the president reversed efforts at the Pentagon and the CIA to ramp up U.S. help. The military pressure that could have brought the Syrian regime to negotiate with opposition moderates at a proposed but elusive Geneva peace conference was allowed to ebb.

Now, with Assad the key to implementing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the Obama administration is in no position to weigh in heavily on the side of his mortal enemies. If Hafez were still with us, he would be a smiling, proud papa.

The U.S. drift on Syria’s civil war was clear enough for Kerry to confide to colleagues in his first weeks at the State Department that his three chief initial goals were to get the United States more involved in Syria, to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to do something on climate change.

He has followed through on Syria in forceful fashion, raising the issue in Washington and foreign capitals at every chance. More trusted by Obama’s tight inner circle than was former presidential rival Hillary Clinton, Kerry has more room to maneuver at State and has shown that he will use it.

Kerry also seems more aware than Obama of the need to act now to repair the long-term damage that the zigzag of U.S. policy on Syria has done with Saudi Arabia and Israel. His meetings next week with leaders from those two nations will give him new opportunity — and need — to tiptoe up to the boundaries the White House has set on U.S. action in the Middle East. Wish him well.