By Paolo von Schirach
September 14, 2013
WASHINGTON – The rather optimistic headlines are that the US and Russia reached an agreement on the destruction of the entire Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. If it were so, this would be a stunning triumph for the Obama administration. Think of it. Until a few days ago, Washington was ready to bomb Assad because of his chemical weapons use on August 21. Now we got him to admit that he has huge WMDs stockpiles and that he will surrender the entire stash, unconditionally, so that it can be destroyed by international UN inspectors.
How do you get rid of WMDs?
If you take this at face value, all is well. Obama managed to obtain a strategic victory –the destruction of Assad’s entire chemical warfare arsenal– without firing a single shot. Quite impressive.
And yet, in this case more so than in others involving complex and lengthy negotiations, the devil is really in the details. This whole operation will take months, perhaps even longer. It will involve an accurate inventory of any and all chemical warfare facilities, storage depots, factories, laboratories and weaponized WMDs. This by itself is a daunting task. Of course, US intelligence has a reasonably good idea of where “the stuff” is within Syria. But there can be errors. The US may have missed some facilities and it may have miscalculated the amounts stashed here and there.
Good faith execution?
And then there will be the technically difficult task of securing this arsenal and destroying it. This will take several months. In the meantime, the Syrian Government, whose full cooperation is essential, is engaged in fighting a civil war. Russia, the country that launched the idea of this process, is helping Assad. America says that it is helping one segment of the anti-Assad insurgency. Do keep in mind that there is no provision within this framework agreement creating a road mp leading to the destruction of Assad’s WMDs about how to end the civil war. And so what we have here is that, under the tutelage of two major powers that support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, there will be the flawless execution of a truly complicated agreement that will deprive Assad of his WMD arsenal. And all this will go well, because it is assumed that everybody –starting with Assad– will act in good faith.
Let me say that there are reasons to be at least skeptical. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly stated that all is well and good, as long as everybody behaves. He warned that the US will watch the process very carefully. As soon as any sign of cheating and/or unjustified delay will be spotted, then it is the end of the story. The US would declare these negotiations to be a failure, and we are back to the military option as the only way to punish Assad.
Under the circumstances, these stern warnings are totally appropriate. Syria is Mafia like government run by gangsters. It is totally appropriate to impress upon them that any cheating or subterfuge will be immediately and severely punished.
Obama cannot order a military attack
That said, a critical ingredient is missing –and the whole world can see this. It is clear to Secretary Kerry, to the Russians and to Assad, that the Obama administration is in no position to use force against Syria. It is obvious that the American people are strongly opposed to any use of force. Opinion polls reveal large majorities against any attack, however “small” and “limited”. Obama asked the Congress to stop debating a resolution about the use of force ostensibly because of the Geneva negotiations about to begin. But everybody knows that he used the negotiations as an excuse to stop a vote he would have lost. Again all this is in plain sight.
Kerry’s threats of swift US action in case of any cheating would be a lot more impressive if both the Russians and the Syrians would believe that Obama has not only the means but also the political backing and therefore the authority to carry out military strikes, if and when necessary.
Such an awareness would be a major incentive to act according to plan. Whereas, the perception that America would probably do nothing in case of Syrian misbehavior, is an inducement to cheat, or at the very least to delay and manipulate.
Who is winning?
More broadly who is going to “win” this political contest? I would say Assad. By eliminating his WMDs, Assad loses an asset, but not a critical one in his fight against the insurgents. Indeed, it is clear that even without WMDs, with Russian and Iranian supplies coming in, Assad will be able to continue his military effort against a far weaker insurgency. In the meantime he re-engages with the international community, proving that Syria is not a pariah state. In fact Syria is a legitimate government fighting nasty Islamic insurgents. (A half truth, at best, as the anti-Assad front is much broader, encompassing secular, pro-democracy forces).
And where does all this leave Obama? With the WMD issue out of the way, America has no longer any excuse for attacking Syria. Of course, Washington could increase its support for the moderate Syrians insurgents, but it is not clear that Obama is really backing them, while the country is opposed to any strategy that might suck America into yet another Middle East conflict.
If we fast forward to 2014, Assad will be still in power, still strongly backed by Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah. So, who is the winner?