US strength of will may be questioned if Syria is hiding chemical arms

If Russian-brokered agreement with Syria's Assad is ultimately ineffective, the US's credibility is likely to suffer in their handling of Iran's nuclear issue.

Bashar Assad 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout)
Bashar Assad 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout)
A US official and the American representative to the United Nations suggested on Tuesday that Syria may be trying to hide some of its chemical weapons, raising more fears among US allies in the region that America is not standing up strongly enough for them.
US allies – such as Israel and the Gulf states – that oppose the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis are further worried what kind of precedent this situation will set for a possible deal with Iran.
The Russian-brokered deal to which the US and Syria agreed called for the complete dismantlement of the latter regime’s chemical weapons. If it turns out that some weapons were secretly retained, it would be a blow to US credibility in the region and likely affect its handling of the Iran nuclear file.
Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview Wednesday evening that for Syrian President Bashar Assad, the deal was a good one because not only did it enable him to stay in power, it granted him a kind of immunity from being attacked by the West.
For the US administration, it was a good deal politically, because America did not want to get involved militarily in Syria but did want to show some sign that it cared about the humanitarian catastrophe occurring there, he said.
Asked if there was a connection between the Syrian agreement and a possible deal with Iran, Zisser maintained that “Iran is one thing and Syria is another. But clearly what connects them is a lack of will in America to get involved in the region.”
Zisser believes it is unlikely that the Syrian leader is hiding chemical weapons, because it would be “too risky for Assad,” and the US could ultimately find weapons that he tried to hide. Furthermore, Zisser added, Assad does not even need them; he has conventional military means to continue fighting the opposition.
Meanwhile, it seems that any deal that Iran would be willing to sign would not be good enough for Israel or the Gulf states, which are demanding a complete stop to the country’s nuclear program.
Many analysts see a partial deal allowing Iran to retain some enrichment capability as more likely.
Elias Harfoush, writing Tuesday in the popular London-based daily Al-Hayat, expressed many Sunni Arab states’ frustrations with the US administration when he said that “Tehran is aware of [US President] Barack Obama’s weakness” and that he “must not surrender to his adversaries” – a reference to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
He concluded by quoting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: Every population or state that trusted America ended up receiving a blow from it.
The news that Assad is cheating is, of course, predictable, noted Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
However, the way the US administration has prematurely credited him and praised the deal, deriding skeptics, naturally raises questions and concerns about whether it will repeat this performance with the Iranians, passing off a bad deal as a diplomatic victory.
Badran told the Post that US allies were already frustrated at the administration’s decision to make a deal with Syria over chemical weapons instead of attacking Assad and enforcing Obama’s redline.
US allies in the region see these recent developments as a “battleground against Iranian regional designs, where the US is refusing to back them and the rebels against Tehran,” Badran said. “This is already causing these allies to question the reliability of the US. The chemical weapons farce will weaken US credibility that much more.”
In addition, he went on, the failure to convene the Syrian peace talks in Geneva demonstrates “that the US doesn’t have a strategy in Syria.”
Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, told the Post that he saw the process of destroying Syria’s chemical arms as continuing successfully despite some reports that the country may be hiding some weapons.
Even if those reports turn out to be true, he went on, it was a possibility that many had already considered.
In any event, “the overall outcome would be far better than could have been achieved by a military attack, which was to be limited in nature to begin with and not even focused on the chemical weapons, but simply a form of punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons,” he said.
Regarding the precedent for Iran, he added, “no one approaches this with any sense of trust toward the Iranians.”
A deal with Iran – considering that it calls for conditions such as limiting the levels of enrichment, transferring its uranium stockpiles out of the country, closing some facilities, and intrusive inspections – would be more a case of “verify” rather than “trust,” he said.
He further pointed out that the deal with Syria “is far from hollow, and given the fact that we have no better alternatives in terms of Iran – a completely successful military strike will not achieve more than a twoto- three-year postponement of the nuclear program and will have significant consequences, both in terms of the American response and Iran- Hezbollah’s military responses against Israel – we should fully support the American effort to reach a reasonable deal with Iran.”
He added that anyone who thought Iran would have to close down its nuclear program in its entirety was being unrealistic.
“We have to ensure – and I believe that there is basic agreement with the US on this – that a compromise agreement leaves Iran a few years away from a nuclear capability, thereby hopefully providing both the international community and Israel with sufficient time to deal with the threat if it reemerges,” he said.