The Syria Opportunity

September 20, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: IranUnited StatesSyria

The Syria Opportunity

Getting rid of the chemical weapons is unlikely, but diplomacy could unjam frozen gears in other areas.

The framework agreement signed by Russia and the United States to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons is an impressive and unprecedented document in the history of arms control. What U.S. strategists ought to realize is that this seemingly stringent plan, and the dialogue it has initiated, has the potential to accomplish both more and less than its aim. The effort to defang Syria might not succeed, but it can help end the civil war and reduce tensions throughout the region if opportunity is recognized and a fleeting diplomatic moment not squandered.

The agreement calls for the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and their precursors. It demands the “immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all [chemical weapon] sites in Syria,” and calls for consequences should Syria balk.

It is clear we should abandon any grandiose expectations of Syrian disarmament. While the emergence of this document amidst the world’s bloodiest civil war is unprecedented, its contents are eerily familiar. The language bears striking similarity to the countless U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for disarmament in Iraq after the First Gulf War. Our experience there must inform our expectations here and the comparison does not breed optimism.

The Iraq experience suggests that we should be highly doubtful of our capacity to assure Syria’s disarmament. When the world attempted to do so in Iraq, the circumstances were far more favorable. Saddam’s military had been decimated by Coalition forces and inspectors were protected by the credible threat of military force. Yet it still took well over a year for the majority of Iraq’s WMD apparatus to be destroyed. Saddam repeatedly stymied inspectors, hid material, and flouted the international community that had already defeated him.

While the Iraqi inspectors left the desert unscathed, the Syrian inspectors will not be so lucky. All will be harassed, some could possibly be kidnapped, and it is unrealistic to believe that none will be killed. Syria is at war with itself, and not all parties are eager to see foreigners roaming the countryside. In Iraq, inspectors confronted a stable, centrally controlled state cowed in battle. Those dispositive circumstances do not hold in Syria. It is probable that the August 21 chemical attack occurred precisely because Assad does not possess the same level of control over his forces. Similarly, while some rebels, like Salim Idris, have publicly agreed to assist inspectors, others have made clear that they will do no such thing. The dangers are manifest and yet have received scant attention in the media.

Assad is far stronger that Saddam, and Syria is not Iraq. These inspections, if ever carried out, will drag out the war, weaken American resolve, reduce international urgency, and continue the brutal repression of Syria. Chemical disarmament by 2014, the stated goal of the Russo-U.S. framework, is an attractive mirage, tempting from a distance, but impossible to actually reach.

So if the prospect of defanging the viper is so nil, why participate in the farce? The answer might surprise you.

The handling of the Syrian problem has been a disaster from the outset. From the spontaneous annunciation of a “red line” to an off-the-cuff remark about chemical disarmament, there has been a striking lack of strategic clarity in responding to this intractable problem. However, as Russia diverts the international debate and Assad grows stronger, the jaws of defeat are closing and it is time to snatch victory from them. And victory is not the chemical disarmament of Syria, but rapprochement with Iran.

The ongoing negotiations to disarm Syria have already spawned discussions about a negotiated settlement to the war. Setting aside the outcome of these negotiations, the primary American interest in them concerns Iran, not Syria. The Syrian crisis has become the opening act in our final contest with Iran. The opportunity to work with Iran to solve Syria must be exploited as a precursor to working against its nuclear weapons program. If debates over chemical disarmament can be transmuted into reconciliation with Iran, then President Obama will have achieved the diplomatic equivalent of alchemy.

The United States recently expressed opposition to the participation of Iran in a proposed peace conference. This is a grave mistake. President Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s newly elected leader, has made several overtures to the West, subtly indicating that he is not his predecessor and might be ready to cut a deal. From his willingness to restart nuclear talks to his Rosh Hashanah tweet to Iranian Jews, Rowhani is sending unmistakable diplomatic signals of détente. Allowing Iran to participate in discussions will demonstrate respect for Rowhani and potentially give him the domestic political cover to negotiate more freely on the nuclear issue. Such participation costs the United States nothing. By contrast, it offers international legitimacy to Rowhani and could make him more amenable to American interests. Finding a mutually acceptable solution in Syria will be a vital trust-building exercise and forerunner to nuclear talks. The price will be high on both sides. Both the rebels and Assad will surely be disappointed whatever the result. However, if that is the cost for peace in the Middle East, cooler heads ought to prevail.

President Obama has the capacity to recognize gain where others see only loss. The disarmament of Syria is a pipe dream that many will be tempted to characterize as folly—an opportunity for him to avoid attacking Syria for its sins. Such ideologues miss the bigger picture. If Obama is able to reclaim the diplomatic initiative by using Syria to solve Iran, he might finally be on his way to earning his Nobel Prize.

Joshua M. Silverstein studies at Yale Law School.