Let's Make a Deal!

A Syria chemical weapons agreement is better than any of the alternatives.

The apparently accidental diplomatic overture from Secretary of State John Kerry, suggesting that Syria transfer its chemical weapons to international control to avoid U.S. airstrikes, has immediately received traction. How seriously either the U.S. or Syria will consider this proposal remains unknown. On the one hand, it is easy to argue that Syria will simply latch on to the proposal as a tactic to forestall U.S. action but has no intention of agreeing to give up its weapons. On the other hand, Syria needs Russian support more than it needs chemical weapons, and Assad may calculate that his chances against the rebels are better if the U.S. does not get directly involved militarily.

From the U.S. perspective the proposal has immediate political impact. Obama cannot strike Syria when his primary justification is in such serious question. There may be other reasons for the U.S. to engage in Syria directly, but the White House’s own PR campaign has emphasized the danger of Syria’s chemical weapons and the potential for them to wind up in the wrong hands. If Syria tells the world they are willing to consider giving them up, Obama’s argument crumbles and he cannot take action until the issue is resolved one way or another.

Ironically, for the U.S. this would be a far better outcome than Obama had any right to imagine just days ago. Having foolishly drawn the red line in the first place, and then having made a complete mess of the campaign to build both public and Congressional support, Obama may now have found a path that both gives him a big win while avoiding either an ugly defeat in Congress or having to launch airstrikes of wildly uncertain consequence. Most of our allies, as well as Russia and China, would be pleased with the outcome. And the U.S. public, which has been unusually decisive in its opposition to airstrikes, would certainly prefer such an outcome.

Opponents of striking a deal with Syria, however, are likely to raise two major objections.

The first major objection is that it will be difficult if not impossible to know if Syria has transferred all of its chemical weapons. Given how relatively small biological and chemical weapons and related facilities are, being confident that you have found them all is a difficult proposition. The U.S. and various international organizations have now twice spent long periods of time stomping through Iraq looking for various weapons of mass destruction with very mixed results. In both cases it was extremely difficult to be confident about what was and was not found—even in 2003, when the U.S. had complete control of the country. Given that it is very unlikely that Assad will be so accommodating to inspectors, how confident can the U.S. be that Syria has done what would be required?

Second, people may argue that transferring Syria’s chemical weapons would do nothing to solve the Assad problem or to shorten the civil war. This is certainly true. Chemical weapons are unlikely to be decisive in the battle against the rebels. Assad will undoubtedly continue to press the attack during what is sure to be a lengthy period of negotiation and inspection. This would create a bizarre juxtaposition that many might find uncomfortable: international teams transferring chemical weapons while the very same day Assad’s forces are killing more rebels and potentially innocent civilians as well.

On the surface these are reasonable objections but nonetheless the deal on the table is a better outcome for the U.S. for several reasons:

First, getting rid of most or even just some of Syria’s chemical weapons is a very good thing—every weapon that gets removed from Syria is a weapon that will not be used later.

Second, the proposal supports the norm of non-use of chemical weapons and upholds the “red line” in a far more precise and logical manner than retributive airstrikes.

Third, it avoids any prospect of collateral damage or killing innocent civilians guaranteed to occur with airstrikes, and also seriously limits the prospects of retaliation by Syria.

Fourth, it repairs rather than degrades U.S. relationships with the international community both generally and specifically with regard to Syria. Future collaboration on Syria is sure to be easier if the deal gets done than it would if the U.S. were to launch airstrikes.

Finally, though the proposal would not immediately resolve the Assad problem, it could well be the opening of the broader conversation about transitioning power in Syria. With a working template in place for negotiating with the Assad regime, the international community is in a much better place to talk Assad in to another deal. And given that the airstrikes under consideration were not likely to change the relative military positions of Assad and the rebels either, this proposal is the clear winner in terms of upside potential.

Obama may not have meant to offer Syria this deal, but it’s the best option on the table by a long shot, and the White House would do well to try to make it happen.

A. Trevor Thrall is an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University and director of the Biodefense Program. He is the coeditor of American Foreign Policy and the Politics of Fear: Threat Inflation since 9/11 and coeditor of the forthcoming book Why Did the United States Invade Iraq?

Image: Flickr/Jeff McNeill. CC BY-SA 2.0.