Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Russia proposes removal of Syrian chemical weapons, US weighs offer

US President Barack Obama will address the nation on chemical weapons in Syria the night of September 10. Obama has expressed scepticism regarding Russia's proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons to international control, but he said that he and his team would study the scheme.

"President Obama will take a hard look at it. But it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. While Mr Kerry said the United States would consider a serious suggestion, the official made clear he did not consider the Russian statement Monday to be one. 

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said September 10 that his government had agreed to the Russian proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent destruction and thereby “derail US aggression”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow and Damascus were preparing a plan of action and would then finalize the plan with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

After more than two weeks of terse words between the United States and Russia, it was the carrot offered by Moscow and the stick wielded by Washington which ultimately made the breakthrough with the new offer. While the plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile safely is not set in concrete, the proposal has the potential to bring all parties to the negotiation table to find an answer.

It does look like Mr Obama bluffed the Syrians out of their chemical weapons. Ideally, if the proposal is genuine, then the Washington should grab it with both hands. Because no matter how hard Mr Obama tries to keep the momentum for war moving at home, he has been unable to swing the American people in support of the policy.

The purpose of Mr Obama’s military threat was to force something out of Syria, although it was never clear exactly what would happen. A few days ago critics of the administration called his strategy “naive”, but if his method removes the possibility of the Syrian regime using chemical weapons and avoids Western-led bloodshed, then it will have worked. But the situation could very well have turned out much worse, and still might.

When the US declared very publicly that any Syrian use of chemical weapons was crossing a “red line”, Washington backed itself into a corner. Yet as the Pentagon moved military assets into the Mediterranean and pounded the war drums it wasn’t just the Syrians who watched beads of sweat form on the upper slopes of their foreheads. Russia has talked more about Syria to the world’s media in the past few weeks than at almost any time during the two-year conflict. Clearly the US threat of military strikes, and their unforeseen consequences, was the boost Moscow needed to get overtly involved in the conflict to protect its few immediate interests and extend its influence in the Middle East.  

As soon as the Russians think Mr Obama can’t attack - whether via a hostile US Congress or overwhelming popular discontent - then the plan is likely to disappear. And there is no discussion at the moment about a cease-fire.

It is far from certain that a permanent cease-fire is even desired. In the murky ethics of foreign policy, there is always a mix of the realistic and the humanitarian. Neither ideal overwhelms the other. So it is with Syria that the ideal situation is continued bloodshed. So long as no side wins, the situation can be handled. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States all bizarrely agree on this point.

If the Syrian regime succeeds in crushing the rebels, then by extension Iran and Russia consolidate their control over a geopolitically significant swathe of the Middle East. The US can’t allow that, and neither can the Saudis. Yet if the rebels are victorious then the various Sunni Islamic forces - including elements of al Qaeda - will hold a very strategic piece of land from where they can base their dreams of creating a Caliphate in the Muslim world. Iran, Russia, and the US must not allow this.

Unfortunately, the longer the fighting stagnates with no end in sight, the better it is for international security. As ironic as that seems.

Bear in mind that, on the Syrian side, the regime has manipulated past peace deals. Right now, the proposal pulls the United States off the red button and gives Syrian President Bashar al Assad time to regroup and prepare for more conventional ways to kill rebel forces. But if the negotiations start, Mr al Assad can delay and obfuscate as much as he wants, so long as his regime appears to be participating. They will get expert consultation from a very experienced Iranian diplomatic corps which are very adept at dragging negotiations out for years while showing little advancement.

So as the drums for war might fade, the situation on the ground in Syria will remain largely unaltered. Any agreement to remove the regime’s weapons is not going to include demands for a cease-fire or push for reconciliation between the various belligerents. Mr al Assad will have used chemical weapons with virtual immunity – at least in the sense of no punitive military response – and is left in a position where he is more or less free to act in whichever way he pleases.

Mr al Assad ultimately comes out looking stronger by defying the US and receiving only words in response, not missiles.

With the inclusion of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting in Syria this summer, the regime has made significant gains against the rebels. A major downside with a US designation of a red line around chemical weapons is that now Washington can’t act to end the conflict if the regime continues to use conventional weapons alone. The fighting in Syria will get worse as the regime cracks down on rebel forces.

As if to confirm this, Syrian government planes bombed the rebel suburbs of Damascus on September 10 for the first time in three weeks, Reuters reported. The heaviest fighting was in Barzeh, where jets staged three air raids while tanks shelled the area. Opposition activists said the offensive shows that Mr al Assad no longer fears a strike by the United States.

Ultimately, if the Russian proposal goes ahead, the Western world will be spared another quagmire the Middle East. The true winners are not really the US or Europe in all this, instead it is Syria, Iran, and especially Russia. Moscow has shown the Arab world that it is back in the game for influence and very much ready to partner with pariah regimes with which the US finds it difficult to cope. Egypt in particular will be looking at these events closely.

But when all this is calculated, bluffing is not a good habit in parents or diplomats and one must use it sparingly. Reward and punishment are not symmetric. If the proposal goes ahead, the US will of course need to be careful how it treads in the future.

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