Syria vigil for chemical attack 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has grasped the Russian lifeline and
The White House claims that, had it not been for a
credible threat of military force, Syria would never have considered placing its
chemical weapons under international control. But the cure may be worse than the
disease. Will the Russian proposal work, and what are the likely ramifications?
First, let’s consider what happened in an analogous situation – Iraq under
Saddam Hussein: Following the first Gulf War, the UN Security Council called for
the removal of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. From 1991 to 2003, the
Security Council passed several resolutions reinforcing the restrictions on
Saddam’s government. (As a US diplomat, I was directly involved in this
process.) The goal was to convince Saddam to alter his brutal internal policies
and terminate his WMD program.
But Saddam continued to brutalize his own
people while refusing to cooperate with the UN’s WMD inspectors. Time after
time, Saddam stated that he would allow full inspection of his suspected WMD
sites, only to renege on his promise or interfere with inspections at the last
The situation on the ground today is substantially more complex
and there is no guarantee that Syrian President Bashar Assad will cooperate any
more than did Saddam. Unlike Iraq, Syria is in the midst of a civil war. It is
estimated that Syria has thousands of tons of chemical weapons. Even if Assad
were to turn them over tomorrow, it could take years to neutralize
Actually, we are about to enter into a period of protracted
negotiations. The weapons must be identified (more than half of the weapons
sites may be hidden), and modalities of inspection, safeguard and transfer must
be developed. Who will protect the inspectors, and what will happen if chemical
weapons are used by Assad or a rogue element of his military during
negotiations? As with Iraq, it is in Assad’s interest to extend the negotiations
as long as possible. In the meantime, he will continue to murder his own people
– using only conventional weapons, of course. In the end, the negotiations may
well fall apart with nothing to show for the effort.
Let us assume that
there is positive movement in the negotiations, and that – wonder of wonders –
Assad actually turns over his WMD. What will have been achieved? Two years ago
President Barack Obama stated in no uncertain terms that “Assad must go.”
Implementation of the Russian proposal requires ongoing official interaction
with the current government. In effect, Obama will have accepted Assad as
Syria’s legitimate ruler for the foreseeable future.
importantly for Israel, the purpose of Obama’s “red line” (which he now denies
having drawn) was to punish Assad for using WMD, so that other countries would
be deterred from committing similar crimes. The administration itself has
entirely removed that concept from the table.
The Russian “solution” may
prevent Assad from using WMDs again, but there is no penalty for his previous
use of them. It is as if police told a serial killer to turn over his gun and
promise never to use it again, assuring him that he was free to kill so long as
he only used a knife.
As bad as was the halfhearted military action
contemplated by Obama, the Russian proposal is even worse when it comes to
sending a message to Iran.
Under the original Obama plan, the ayatollahs
could believe that any US action would be only a pinprick that they could easily
withstand. Under the Russian proposal, they may conclude that the world will
allow them to use a nuclear weapon once without any serious repercussions. In
either case, Iran has no incentive to reduce its nuclear weapons
The US is clearly much worse off than it was just a few weeks
ago. Russia is stronger, and may well become a major player in the Middle East;
Assad is more securely in power; the efficacy of a strike – if one becomes
necessary – has been severely degraded; friends and enemies of the US have seen
that a weakened America will jump at any option in order to avoid using force.
As a result, Israel is now more likely to strike Iran unilaterally rather than
rely on the US to do something meaningful.
It is imperative that Syria be
prevented from using WMD again. However, unless we get much more from the
Russian proposal than we know about right now, this is no victory for anyone who
had hoped for an early end to the killing in Syria or a slowdown in Iran’s
nuclear program. At best, the US is becoming irrelevant in the region. At worst,
we may be witnessing the beginning of a precipitous decline in its role as a
superpower. White House celebrations are certainly premature.
a former US diplomat, was directly involved in enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq and
in implementing the UN’s “Oil-for-Food” program. He is a Senior Fellow at
Bar-Ilan’s Center for International Communication and a Fellow at the
International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC.