A potential turning point for Syria

September 11, 2013

In the dizzying debate over U.S. military intervention in Syria, one key point of consensus stands out: Both the Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria’s conflict must come through a negotiated settlement. Key international actors share the same conclusion.

But how do we get there? Russia’s recent proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control could open a viable path to a long-sought diplomatic solution.

This initiative is a long shot. Yet, its potential payoff as a diplomatic breakthrough demands it be taken seriously. Not only would Syrian civilians be spared any unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention, but the Russian proposal’s successful implementation could be a real turning point.

The removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal would be a significant plus for the region and beyond. Moreover, using legal channels to redress the wanton use of chemical weapons against civilians would enhance global security and begin to restore the international norms egregiously violated in the August 21 attack. By relying on U.N. channels, the destruction of chemical weapons  would also help restore confidence in the U.N., which has been essentially ineffective on Syria.

The Russian proposal could also move us toward a negotiated settlement. Washington could enlist Moscow’s cooperation for a “Geneva II” conference, bringing key protagonists in Syria’s conflict around the negotiating table. Washington and Moscow should set a specific conference date and use their influence to get everyone to the negotiating table.

Moscow and Tehran could press the Assad regime to participate in transition talks that lead to the creation of a “transitional executive body” — as envisioned by the June 2012 Geneva agreement.

Both Russia and Iran — Syria’s two key allies — may be shifting their support away from the regime in the wake of last month’s chemical weapons attack. Russia’s call for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and Iran’s public disapproval of their use suggest increasing concern over the Assad regime’s behavior.

Of course, the United States and its allies would have to convince the opposition to take part as well — a daunting task given the Syrian opposition’s enduring divisions. In addition, the United States would need to agree to Iran’s participation in the talks. But engaging Iran in multilateral talks on Syria would not only enhance the prospects of success, it could serve as an entrée to more serious discussion of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Despite these enticing possibilities, Moscow’s plan still warrants significant skepticism. Experts note that it could be virtually impossible to locate all of Syria’s chemical weapons sites, or that the undertaking would require months if not years. Still, intelligence agencies around the world have collected significant intelligence on Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities, and these reports — particularly if bolstered by Russian cooperation — could facilitate inspections.

Nonetheless, major uncertainties exist over the proposal’s contours and prospects for Syria’s full compliance. Has President Bashar al-Assad signed off on the deal? How can the international community confirm that the Syrians have disclosed the total amount and locations of their chemical weapons stockpile? Who can assure the safety of U.N. inspectors as they visit various sites, and how can the weapons’ safe transport be assured amid Syria’s violent chaos? How long will this process take?

All reasonable questions — with no easy answers. The United States, France and Britain must thoroughly vet the Russian proposal and seek to bolster it through a U.N. Security Council resolution that holds Syria responsible for its complete implementation or face serious repercussions.

After probing this Russian-sponsored deal, Washington and its allies might deem it an insincere delaying tactic. Russia is already raising objections about whether the call for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons could be backed by the use of force. Should the proposal collapse, however, Washington will be in a stronger position to rally broad international support to take decisive action on Syria.

Russia is also now on the record calling for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile. China and Iran have voiced their support. Should Syria or its allies waver here, the United States would be in stronger position for military intervention — having truly exhausted all diplomatic efforts.

PHOTO: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shows the way to his Syrian counterpart Walid Moualem during a meeting in Moscow September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin


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Along with the work of Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman*, please feature that of Mona Yacoubian more frequently.



*Making frenemies with Putin, September 10, 2013.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

A negotiated settlement ain’t gonna happen! “Both the Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria’s conflict must come through a negotiated settlement.” sounds like such nimrod banter. The war in Syria cannot be stopped by anything other than violence and force.

There does seem to be a chance to remove some chemical weapons from Syria. It is a mistake to think that a negotiated settlement of the war can be linked.

Posted by Billyfrumusa | Report as abusive

It is interesting that the use of chemical weapons has paid off big time for the Assad regime.Soon enough he will be the darling of all civilized nations for having surrendered his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.And just imagine how much better are the prospects of a “negotiated settlement” to the war now that the use of force has been replaced by diplomacy.
It is a sign of creative genius to be able to transform a humanitarian disaster into pure farce.

Posted by Biscayne | Report as abusive

There may be stashes of chemical weapons all over the ME?

It wouldn’t be surprising in as much as this country is armed to the teeth with legal and illegal weapons and there isn’t even a state of chronic war within its own borders.

The chemical weapons may serve as a kind of security blanket for many ME states. They may even be soto voce status symbols? Does this country take comfort from being one of the few that have nuclear weapons? They are definitely planetary status symbols.

They may sign the treaties but still keep something in reserve? I haven’t read anything about it in years but saw something at the start of the Iraq war that said the second Bush admin. was considering, or had begun to manufacture, some chemical weapons. I assumed the idea was killed and didn’t look any further.

At Billyfumusa – If freedom fighters can be so eager to fight that no reason to stop is ever acceptable to them, it suggests they are either so filled with hatred, even unreasonable hatred of Assad, or they simply don’t care about anything but the thrill and income derived from the fight itself. They should know they can’t have everything they may want and they will have to learn to detach themselves from some cherished dreams. It’s also hard to tell if either side of the civil war really respects human rights, especially the UN definition of them, at all.

In a world that is generally so peaceful and where most people’s will to violence is sublimated or served by substitute outlets for aggression like sports, some hobbies and even business practices, the opposition could be having the most carefree time of their young lives practicing the real thing?

I just re-watched Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” and it was obvious Alexander’s closest comrades lived for the fight but didn’t seem as concerned with the consolidation of an empire that fell apart on Alexander’s death. They knew how to fight better than they knew how to govern. In fact they valued dieing for their dreams of glory more than actually living in the results. The result of almost a decade of conquest was forty more years of civil war.

The young men in Syria are engaging in the activity that their culture and many others have always valued for young men. It was needed or the men never became fully men and usually never occupied enjoyed a life with status in their cultures. In a region of the world where the resources were scarce and the population abundant, the competition between cultures has always been fierce since the beginning of time.

Both Islam and Christianity wanted disparate people to believe something in common and that’s why they tend to be seen as peacemakers. But they aren’t so peaceful if their dominion is challenged. That destroys the commonality they hope to preserve and the religious aspects are definitely part of the opposition’s goals. The Assad regime is still, practically speaking, “atheist”. The regime is smart enough not to take sides and that’s a point in the government’s favor but it offends the fervor and puritanical streak in the young who will bring misery and conflict if they try to impose their own notions of purity on all the Syrians. Democratic governments do not deal with pure motives or actions and their laws do not have the force of religious dogma. But religious people don’t tend to experiment with their belief systems while governments do that all the time. So the religious people have a much harder time adapting to changing world circumstances.

The youth of the freedom fighters may see the worldly sophistication of the Assad regime as corrupt but the young always see the world and age as corrupt. If they live they will only join the corruption they may think they are fighting now.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

“The Russian proposal could also move us toward a negotiated settlement.”

Any negotiated settlement will be limited to the U.S. not taking military action in Syria.

As for the Syrian civil war, the author is deluded. There is no way either of the zealots of the Islamist sects in this war are going to relinquish anything. (I take that back–they will both agree to the total annihilation of Christians. It will be a contest of “who killed the most infidels.” Beyond that…nothing.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

“Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria’s conflict must come through a negotiated settlement.”

It is probably overstating it to say “must” in this context. Surely, the Obama administration is signaling that it is preferable to reach a negotiated settlement, but they are also signaling that it is absolutely necessary. The imperative for a negotiated settlement appears to be stronger for the Putin administration, which faces the possibility of losing an important client.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive