A new hope appears in Syria, but Assad’s chemical menace likely can’t be removed peacefully

September 12, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 12, 2013

After some Keystone Kops–like antics and contortions by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration, a partial solution to the brewing Syria crisis suddenly emerged Monday.

Kerry in one breath raised and then dismissed the possibility of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turning over his entire chemical weapons stock as a way to deter possible American military strikes. Within a matter of hours, both Assad and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had tentatively endorsed the idea. We’ll have to see what emerges, but this is a positive development.

Which is to say, it’s a positive development in the short term. I’m cautiously optimistic that Assad, Putin and the Obama administration can reach a bargain that staves off American military intervention in exchange for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. (Ideally, Syrian chemical and suspected biological weapons will be identified, secured and ultimately destroyed.)

Having fewer deployable weapons of mass destruction loose in the world — or in the hands of despotic or untrustworthy regimes — is obviously a very good thing. Averting American missile or bomb strikes that had a high potential of killing innocent civilians and a low potential of deterring future WMD use is also a very good thing. Preventing some kind of boots-on-the-ground intervention, and all the bloody consequences that are inextricably linked to those actions, is even better.

If Assad were to retain his chemical weapons, the best case is simply that nothing happens — the weapons see no further use. But plenty of much direr scenarios could easily unspool if Syria retains its WMDs. Perhaps Assad would gas more civilians. Or al Qaeda, which has loyalists among the rebel fighters, might capture his chemical and possibly biological weapons and attempt to use them, either in Syria or abroad.

Perhaps worst of all, if the world does nothing in response to the deaths of hundreds of Damascus residents, other possessors of WMDs might feel emboldened to wield them. Imagine government troops in restless Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries using sarin or mustard gas on political protesters as a matter of course. The kind of mass-casualty event seen in Damascus in August could start to occur a few times a year.

I think that’s unlikely to happen. But the international community showing that it has no will to react to the gassing of civilians makes it a little bit more likely.

Back to the (partially) optimistic scenario. If Assad agrees to surrender WMDs without a fight, I see the world gaining two benefits. One is that those weapons are unlikely to be used again, either by Assad or the rebels. The other is that this would create a sort of “use it and lose it” precedent for regimes that have weapons of mass destruction.

Granted, precedents hold relatively little power to influence future events — but such a development, however ephemeral, is obviously preferable to any of the alternatives.

Unfortunately, I think that whatever happens with Syria in the short term, we’re still going to be left with a deadly mess. The two-and-a-half-year-old civil war there has already killed at least 100,000 people, many of them civilians, and created 2 million refugees. Assad’s surrendering his WMDs won’t end the ongoing violence.

And regardless of whether Assad or the rebels get the upper hand in the long run, there’s no clear way forward that will lead to the installation of a government that is peaceful, democratic and friendly to the United States. Remember, both sides in the civil war have been accused of massacring civilians.

Also, any action to secure, move or destroy Syrian WMDs will of necessity occur in a war zone. Last month, a convoy of United Nations inspectors came under sniper fire in Damascus and had to abandon one of their vehicles.

No one was injured in that case, but it’s easy to imagine foreign troops and civilians detailed to guard, transport or dispose of deadly weapons sustaining casualties. Depending on exactly what takes place, such an incident could trigger additional foreign troop deployments.

Ultimately, I fear some kind of outside military intervention is all but inevitable. And that is why, although I welcome this week’s news that Assad may hand over his chemical weapons, I’m pessimistic about the long-term prospects for a peaceful resolution of Syria’s civil war.

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