Commentary Magazine


Syria Deal Faces Long Odds

If John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have concluded a deal that will really result in the elimination of Syria’s entire arsenal of chemical weapons by this time next year, they will win the Nobel Peace Prize–and, unlike so many previous Nobel recipients, they would have earned theirs. But there is good cause for concern that the deal will fall apart long before next year’s Nobels are handed out.

Indeed, if the deal is implemented as advertised, it would be an unprecedented and almost unbelievable achievement: UN inspectors will have to catalogue, seize, and destroy some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons while a brutal civil war rages around them. Little wonder that Kerry added, when he first offered a way for Syria to avoid American military action, that such a plan couldn’t and wouldn’t be accepted. Now it has been accepted at least by the U.S. and Russia but without any obvious sticks to compel Assad’s cooperation, with Russia steadily refusing to support a Chapter VII resolution to compel Syrian compliance.

The indications from Damascus are, at best, mixed: Assad most recently said he would eliminate his chemical weapons only if the U.S. stopped threatening him and stopped supporting the opposition. This, mercifully, President Obama has not pledged to do, but his misguided decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike against Syria–authorization which, it was clear, would not be forthcoming–has substantially weakened the threat of American military action which is necessary to compel Assad’s compliance.

The danger here–indeed the likelihood–is that Assad will drag this process out as long as possible, offering partial compliance, for example submitting a list of some, but not all, of his chemical weapons. Indeed, if he submitted a full and complete list of weapons and sites he would be in danger of putting a noose around his neck, since it would be tantamount to an admission that the chemical-weapons attack which killed some 1,400 civilians was carried out by government forces–something that Moscow and Damascus continue to strenuously deny, in no small part because Assad must know he faces the possibility of trial as a war criminal.

So the odds are that Assad will offer limited, not whole-hearted cooperation, and all the while this is going on the United States and the rest of what passes for the civilized world is, in effect, locked into a partnership with this murderous regime. Assad thereby gains added legitimacy on the international stage and decreases the threat of international military action against him.

If we could actually eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, this might be a bargain worth taking but, again, the odds of success are not good.

It is imperative that, whatever happens, we not lose sight of the bigger strategic picture: Assad is a rabidly anti-American, anti-Israel leader, an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, whose overthrow is in America’s strategic interest. Whatever happens with his chemical weapons, we must not lose sight of the imperative to support the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition striving to overthrow him.