Syria Deal: As Good As It Gets?

A strong line will be vital in negotiations, for Damascus is sure to dawdle.

On paper, the Russian proposal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons looks like the optimal outcome, a result of American coercive diplomacy at its best. A military attack to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons was never the objective, but a means to an end, which was to firmly establish the principle that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated in the modern world. If—and this is a very big if—even part of the Syrian chemical arsenal is actually placed under international supervision and ultimately dismantled, the United States will have achieved far more than it set out to do, and the Obama administration will be able to claim a major foreign-policy success. It is, however, far too early to predict success, indeed, the prospects are limited.

As with any good package deal, all sides gain from the Russian proposal and no one loses more than they can tolerate.

The United States and its Western allies achieve their objectives without recourse to force, Obama is spared an embarrassing defeat in Congress and if the deal is actually implemented most observers will not remember his irresolution and repeated zigzags. Britain and France, ineffectual relics of past powers—though France did show some spine in this round—are spared the embarrassment of their own impotence. Russia, which almost desperately wants to prevent a further display of America’s singular might and role in the world, gained a rare and striking diplomatic success, thwarted unilateral American action, protected its Syrian ally from attack and proved (mostly to itself) that it remains an important world power.

The heinous Syrian regime proved its willingness to stand-up to the United States in the face of a threat of military attack, strengthened its image of strength and resolve despite the ongoing civil war, and avoided an attack whose ultimate consequences are unclear and which might have been more than it could bear. In the meantime, it can continue slaughtering its citizens with wild abandon, as international pusillanimity has now made it clear that no one truly cares about the killing of over 110,000 people by “conventional” means, and that even the use of chemical weapons does not elicit an appropriate international response.

Iran, which showed a surprising appreciation of the consequences of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, turned on its ally, demanded that Damascus accept the Russian proposal and came off looking like a responsible player. By helping to prevent an American attack against Syria, Iran also helped avoid the establishment of a precedent whereby the United States and international community actually act militarily to deal with a WMD threat, Tehran’s ultimate fear.

Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, are spared the possible destabilizing effects of an American attack, including even greater refugee outflows from Syria, and heightened domestic tensions.

For Israel, the stakes are particularly high. Not only is Syria’s chemical arsenal designed principally for use against it, but Israel views Obama’s handling of the Syrian situation as an indication of his future behavior regarding Iran’s far more dangerous nuclear program. In the short term, Israelis will breathe more easily. Despite repeated reassurances by the government and a virtual consensus among Israeli commentators that the likelihood of a Syrian chemical attack on Israel, in response to an American strike, was very low, Israelis besieged national gas-mask distribution centers in droves. They will be less sanguine about the long-term.

Amidst all of the uncertainty surrounding the details of the Russian proposal and the chances of it actually being implemented, there are, however, two near-certainties. Syria will do everything possible to delay, prevent, circumvent and minimize the actual transfer of its chemical arsenal to international control, let alone dismantlement, and will enjoy significant Russian and Iranian backing in these efforts. The Russians, for their part, rejected Western demands that the UN resolution embodying the proposal include a threat of the use of force, should Syria fail to fulfill its commitments.

To an extent we are back to square one. The Syrians will be sure to raise objections regarding such issues as the nationality of the international inspectors, the inspections mandate, including sites inspectors are allowed to enter, the timing of inspections and much more. With Russian backing, they will seek to play for time, undermine any possibility that the United States might actually attack at a later stage, preserve as much of their chemical capability as possible and ultimately, grudgingly, accede only to the most minimal steps they can get away with. Given the magnitude of the Syrian chemical arsenal, sometimes called the largest in the world, its dismantlement might take years in optimal conditions and in Syria, both intentional obstructionism and the additional constraints posed by the ongoing civil war, will make it that much harder. Few nations will be willing to contribute personnel. Indeed, from a purely logistical point of view it is unclear how the monitoring and dismantlement processes can be conducted in such conditions.

If even part of the Syrian arsenal is ultimately placed under international monitoring, let alone dismantled, this will constitute a major U.S. achievement, especially in the prevailing circumstances.