The debate over Syria took a new turn on Monday when Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Bashar Assad could avoid American airstrikes if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” Kerry added that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
But that didn’t stop Russia and other nations from jumping on the idea after the Syrian government said it welcomed the idea. Now this seemingly offhand suggestion–which Kerry apparently did not mean to float as a serious proposal–is being seriously debated as an alternative to American military action.
If Assad were serious about turning over his entire chemical weapons stockpile–not to mention destroying all capacity to manufacture more such weapons in the future–this might conceivably be a deal worth taking even at the risk of Assad rebuilding his chemical weapons capacity sometime in the future. But the odds of Assad assenting to such a deal are slight: Why should he when he knows that, worst case, he faces an “unbelievably small” American airstrike, as Kerry himself has said?
Chemical weapons are an important source of power for the Assad regime, not only for the threat they pose to Israel but, more immediately, for the threat they pose to Assad’s rebellious subjects. He is unlikely to give up such an advantage, which is so crucial to his regime’s survival, unless he were convinced that his regime would crumble otherwise. But nothing that President Obama or his aides have said would lead him to come to that conclusion.
Even if Assad claimed to be serious about such a deal–and he has said no such thing yet, in fact he hasn’t even acknowledged that he possesses chemical weapons–it is hard to know how such a deal could be implemented or enforced. It is one thing for inspectors to travel to Libya in 2003 to make sure that Gaddafi was giving up his entire WMD program. Libya then was a peaceful if despotic place. It is quite another thing to do so now in Syria where violence is commonplace–in fact UN inspectors looking for evidence of chemical-weapons use have already been shot at. How on earth could international inspectors possibly roam Syria in the middle of a civil war to confirm that Assad has no more chemical weapons left?
The task is daunting, indeed nearly impossible, in no small part because of our lack of knowledge about the whereabouts of his arsenal. The New York Times reports: “A senior American official who has been briefed extensively on the intelligence noted in recent days that Washington has firm knowledge of only 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites. Those numbers are constantly changing, because Mr. Assad has been moving the stores, largely for fear some of them could fall into the hands of rebels.”
Even if we knew where all the stockpiles were, removing them and destroying them–presumably a process that would have to occur outside the country–would be an enormous undertaking that could easily involve thousands of foreign workers along with thousands, even tens of thousands, of soldiers to protect them. It is hard to imagine such an undertaking occurring in wartime; few if any nations will risk their troops on the ground in Syria to make the process possible and Syria’s government would be unlikely to grant them permission to do so.
This, then, is not a serious alternative to military action. It is a stalling tactic to allow Assad to retain his chemical-weapons capacity–and other weapons that have killed far more people. It is also a distraction from the real issue, which is not Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile but the continuing existence of the Assad regime itself.
More than 100,000 people have already died in the Syrian civil war and more will continue to die as long as the Assad regime remains in power. There are admittedly real dangers in what post-Assad Syria will look like, but we already know what Syria under the Assad regime looks like today–it is a disaster, not only from a humanitarian but also from a strategic standpoint, because al-Qaeda is already consolidating control over parts of northern Syria while Iran is able to maintain a client regime in power in Damascus.
The U.S. policy should be not just the removal of the chemical-weapons stockpile but of the Assad regime itself. In fact Obama has said that is his goal–but he is not willing to take the actions necessary to bring it about. In the face of this leadership vacuum, it is hardly surprising that all sorts of odd ideas are being floated.