A sigh of relief was heard in Washington on Monday morning when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry uttered the statement that Syria could avoid a military strike if it hands over its entire stock of chemical weapons. Kerry’s statement is too consequential to be a gaffe, and has re-opened the door for horse-trading with Russia on Syria, while keeping the strong possibility of a strike if these efforts teeter or collapse.
In matter of hours following Kerry’s comments, France, the UK, the Arab League and Turkey all welcomed the rhetoric, while Russia quickly jumped on board, launching a proposal and a mediation effort with the Assad regime to avert a strike. The developments have also inaugurated a UNSC effort on a Chapter 7 resolution to dismantle Assad’s stockpile which is estimated by French intelligence to have 1000 tons of chemical agents, making it “one of the most important operational stocks in the world.”
As Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov meet in Geneva, Moscow’s proposal should not have come as a complete surprise. In fact, major aspects of the military threat that Obama has been leading since August 23rd against Assad, were directed, in timing and context, at Russia. The U.S. early on hinted that a strike would destroy Russian helicopters deployed in Syrian airbases and target units in the Syrian Air Force and Syrian intelligence, both have historically strong ties with the Kremlin. The Assad regime represents the center of gravity for Russian influence in the Middle East, prompting Moscow to stand alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the past two and a half years as he battles for survival. Averting a strike saves the regime, for now, from further degradation, and preserves Russian interest in the short term.
Chemical weapons stockpiles are a valuable deterrent for the Assad regime, regionally and internallyJoyce Karam
U.S. officials remain convinced that the credible threat of force made the Kremlin blink and float the proposal. It was no coincidence that U.S. military threats reached their peak ahead of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg last week. Kerry made a strong call for action and the Pentagon moved seven warships and two submarines to the east Mediterranean. The U.S. gave every indication that the threat of force was imminent and credible, up until Obama’s decision to refer to Congress 48 hours before leaving to Russia. The move, while it confused members of Congress, bought him more time until his 20 minute “constructive” meeting with his Russian counterpart Putin on Friday. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem flew into Moscow a day after that meeting, followed by a visit of Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who arrived in Moscow on Monday.
The Russian proposal grants Obama a graceful exit from the congressional process and lends Putin international clout in engaging and challenging Obama on the world stage. Nevertheless, the risk of greater chaos in Syria is a concern for both Washington and Moscow, and the fear of those weapons falling into the hands of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda affiliates or even Hezbollah grows.
Mechanism and Military Action
The success of any effort of such magnitude, however, will depend on the timeline and the mechanism being negotiated to implement it. Sources tell Al Arabiya that differences between Russia and the U.S. have already emerged on who might oversee the dismantling, with Washington favoring the United Nations and Moscow favoring a big role for its ally, the Syrian government. Questions on access, enforcement, risk of transfers and level of scrutiny are already being debated and will require tedious diplomacy to avoid the implosion of the proposal before any agreement materializes.
Chemical weapons stockpiles are a valuable deterrent for the regime, regionally and internally, and Assad will do his best to drag out the process and avoid turning over those facilities and ultimately destroying them. Unlike the Libyan scenario in 2004 where Moammar Qaddafi gave up his stockpile in return for political and economic incentives, there are no carrots offered to Assad here and his only options are to cooperate or face harsher punitive military action.
In this context, the military pressure is likely to hold until a breakthrough is achieved. Obama declared Tuesday night that he ordered the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” The Russian proposal has in its own way granted Obama an international cover for the Syrian debate and a more credible process that might help with the skeptic lawmakers, and the American public, if negotiations falter. Congress is considering a new resolution that would give U.N. efforts 30 days before a military strike would take place.
More significantly, the highly anticipated U.N. inspector’s report will, according to Foreign Policy, point fingers at the Assad regime for gassing his own people. This will strengthen Obama’s case internationally and in Congress after rallying 33 signatories to the G20 statement. The Obama administration’s preference is undoubtedly in achieving a diplomatic breakthrough rather than a strike which would not target the chemical weapons facilities. Any diplomatic failure, however, will push the U.S. into taking action, given that the White House credibility is on the line in the region. Washington is also stepping up its lethal aid to Syria’s rebels, as another tool to pressure Assad.
It remains too early to pre-judge the outcome of this process, but for now the U.S.-Russian bazaar has kicked off and the global debate on Syria before the Ghouta attack on Aug. 21st, is very different from the one after.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
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