We may never know whether U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intended to set in motion the creation of a diplomatic alternative to a military strike on Syria, but that doesn’t matter all that much. Transferring Syria’s chemical weapons to international control isn’t a new idea, it just didn’t get any traction when it was floated earlier, likely because the possibility of a military strike wasn’t looming behind it. Regardless of how the option got on to the table, Bashar Assad has seized it with American and Russia encouragement.
Global attention has turned to the practicalities of transferring weapons from Syria to Russia. But in the rush to debate if and how the international community can get chemical weapons out of Syria and safely and efficiently into Russia, analysts are skipping over the most significant consequence of the U.S.-Russian proposal.
By following up on Kerry’s suggestion, Assad’s regime has bought itself time. Not just days or weeks, as many pundits have noted, but months or likely even a couple of years. Time to reassert its control over the entire country. Why? Put simply, the United States will need and want the Assad regime to maintain control of the country long enough to track down, extricate and destroy every last piece of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Those who thought Washington’s disgust with Assad after the chemical attacks was so intense as to render his ruling for an extended period of time an impossibility are quickly re-evaluating, and for good reason. Disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons would be a geostrategic achievement for the Obama administration; a chemically castrated Syria would be significantly less of a threat to its neighbours and the wider region.
It would also be an international coup as the West has been trying for more than 20 years to get Syria to admit to its stockpile, let in international arms inspectors and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. As pointed out by chemical weapons experts, the Syrian chemical arsenal is vast, amounting to thousands of tonnes. Intelligence reports revealed to U.S. congressional representatives suggest there may be at least 19 chemical weapons depots, including several production facilities — some of which are underground, in densely populated urban areas, or extremely remote locations — as well as research and development centres.
But chemically disarming Syria presents a massive and unprecedented challenge to the international community, and one that cannot be overcome without the Assad regime. Assad knows that his retaining a firm grip on power is imperative to the plan’s success, and he will use this to keep his attackers from rearming against him.
The rebels do not have the capability or requisite knowledge of the locations of weapons silos and their contents to assist with an international disarmament process. The opposition’s continued disunity and unreliability mean that however distasteful the United States may find the prospect of working with the Assad regime, it is the only realistic option, given the long and arduous road to disarmament that undoubtedly lies ahead.
Obama’s enthusiasm for the weapons transfer, despite his initial efforts to mute it by keeping the military strike “on the table” is obvious. His administration is hardly likely to risk failure by supporting the rebels or attempting to further undermine the regime covertly or diplomatically.
The consequences of this for the Syrian opposition are stark. The moment Assad formally agreed to follow up at the UN on the transfer proposal, the window for “degrading Assad and upgrading the rebels” slammed shut. The echo will still be ringing in the ears of the rebels, the Syrian military and extremists alike.
Assad has bought himself years of effective non-interference in Syria’s domestic affairs, including his ongoing quest to crush his opponents. But this does not presuppose his long-term victory — the international community’s brief romance with Moammar Gadhafi, who turned over his chemical weapons in the mid-2000s and was then welcomed into the international community, ended swiftly when the Benghazi rebels looked like a sure bet to overthrow his regime. The fate of Assad’s regime is likely to be similar, but in the meantime he’s made a tactical move, trading weapons for tacit approval of his continued reign over Syria.
The United States has implicitly decided to keep the butcher of Damascus in power. It’s a gamble and the stakes — the lives of Syrians and the future of their country — couldn’t be higher. Now that Obama has shown his hand, the opposition can do little but fold, and we must wait to see if Assad is bluffing. Years from now, we may still be waiting.