WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the world takes a collective sigh of relief now that a deal has been concluded that aims to remove Syria’s chemical weapons it seems timely to ask a painfully obvious question: what was really achieved?
From where I sit in Washington the answer is clear — next to nothing, for America or the world.
To be clear, there are some positive aspects to the deal that are worth mentioning.
The United States will hold off on attacking Syria with cruise missiles for the foreseeable future. This spares President Barack Obama a likely defeat in the U.S. Congress and the painful decision of having to attack without congressional approval. With many questioning what would have been achieved by a “pinprick” operation that would have been unable to stop future chemical attacks anyway, diplomacy seems to now be the preferred if not exclusive path. While many claim Obama could still order military action, unless Assad launches a massive chemical attack it seems the window for a military strike has passed. One potential tool for changing Assad’s strategic calculations — the possibility of military action– has been effectively taken off the table.
Moving on to the unpleasant aspects of the deal, one point is painfully clear: There is no way to know for certain if Assad hands over all of his chemical weapons, facilities to create such weapons, and delivery systems. Even the most competent and trained personnel, working in the best of conditions and not in the midst of a civil war would find destroying Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical weapons a tremendous challenge. There is always the possibility that Assad could hold back some of his weapons fearing that if rebel forces were someday close to victory he would have one possible insurance policy against an imminent collapse. Combined with the fact that destroying such weapons will likely take years even under the best conditions, the likelihood that conditions on the ground would remain stable across the various sites where accounting, removal and possibly destruction would need to be done seems very low. If Assad wanted to slow the process, attempt to hide materials, or just make a mockery of the agreement he need look no further than the recent past: the Iraq WMD inspection nightmare of the 1990s. Does anyone honestly want a repeat of such a mess?
As for the man who America blames for launching one of the worst chemical weapons attacks in recent memory, he gets to stay in power. Assad, one could argue, is strengthened by this potential deal. The United States, its allies and Russia are now locked into what could be years of negotiations to find, account for and destroy Syria’s seemingly vast chemical weapons stockpiles. Assad, knowing it would be a horrendous tactical folly to use chemical weapons again, does have the ability to strike with impunity using the full range of his conventional weapons. With the world’s gaze shifted to his chemical weapons and not the daily ups and downs of a civil war that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and displaced millions, Assad may have the strategic room he needs to gain an advantage on the battlefield.
Diplomatically, Russia seems to have benefited from the crisis in a number of ways. In what many called a gaffe or throwaway line, Moscow used Kerry’s “off the cuff” call for Syria to remove chemical weapons and re-spun his comments into a diplomatic alternative. Russia can claim to have halted American strikes on a loyal ally, its naval facility in Tartus is secured, and Moscow can take credit for halting another U.S. conflict in the Middle East. For those who feel diplomacy is a zero-sum game, Russia clearly comes out a winner along with its Syrian ally.
Then there are the ramifications globally — especially in the Asia-Pacific.
As the world struggles with its response to Iran’s budding nuclear program, many have argued that the Syrian chemical weapons deal could prove to Iran that the West is not serious in stopping in what many feel is Iran’s push towards nuclear weapons – or something close to a “breakout capability.” Others look to North Korea and fear Pyongyang may draw the lesson that the use of chemical weapons will have few ramifications. Some could even conclude that Washington, war-weary from long commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and a seemingly unending war on terror is pulling back across the globe. Would America come to Japan’s aid over remote islands in East China Sea if tensions with China boiled over? Would Washington come to Taiwan’s defense if relations with Beijing were to turn sour?
It seems that no matter where you sit on the political spectrum, there is very little to like in this agreement that asks more questions than it solves. Prefer that America stay out of Syrian affairs? Your hopes are clearly dashed. Wanted Assad removed? He stays in power and is now legitimized in some respects. Hoping to see Syria’s chemical weapons removed? The deal in place offers no guarantees and tons of possible roadblocks. If you were looking for a strike to demonstrate America’s resolve with Washington backing its words with action and a limited military action — well…you are not very happy with this deal either. The only folks who could be possibly happy would be those who were looking for a way out of military action at any cost — never a way to conduct a nation’s foreign affairs.
One thing is clear: for better or worse, America is involved in Syria for the long-haul.