Daniel W. Drezner

Why the U.S. should treat the proposed Syria deal as a gift from the gods

Well, quite a bit has happened on Syria in the last twenty-four hours.  It started with an offhand suggestion by John Kerry that Syria could avoid external military intervention by giving up a chemical weapons stockpile that Bashir Assad has never admitted to possessing.  Then a funny thing happened — Russia embraced the proposal, Syria’s ...

Well, quite a bit has happened on Syria in the last twenty-four hours.  It started with an offhand suggestion by John Kerry that Syria could avoid external military intervention by giving up a chemical weapons stockpile that Bashir Assad has never admitted to possessing.  Then a funny thing happened — Russia embraced the proposal, Syria’s government responded positively as well, and then President Obama signaled cautious support.  Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham seemed willing to give the idea a try.  Or, as Andrew Kydd put it, "operating out of sheer malice, Syria and Russia are offering him a face-saving way to back out of the crisis gracefully by disingenuously accepting a disingenuous and unauthorized proposal from his own Secretary of State."

Which leads us back to the United Nations Security Council

 

An unexpected Russian proposal for Syria to avert a U.S. military strike by transferring control of its chemical weapons appeared to be gaining traction on Tuesday, as France said it would draft a U.N. Security Council resolution to put the plan into effect, and China and Iran voiced some support.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris that by bringing the proposal to the security council, the world would be able to judge the intentions of Russia and China, which until now have blocked efforts to sanction Syria for any actions during its two-and-a-half-year-long civil war.

Now, there are valid reasons to be dubious about the likelihood of this working out well.  First, this does nothing to address the prior uses of chemical weapons, nor does it really stop the ongoing bloodshed that is Syria’s civil war.  Second, even assuming everyone wants to cooperate, the logistics of getting the chemical weapons stockpile out of Syria seems… tricky.  Third, it’s not obvious that the Syrian government really wants to cooperate.  Which means that the U.S. could agree to a deal that wouldn’t eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Still, if I was advising the Obama administration, I’d tell them to take this deal — it’s a foreign policy gift from the gods. 

First of all, this solves the inherent tension between Obama’s goals in Syria.  He really does want to enforce the chemical weapons taboo, and yet he really doesn’t want either side to claim victory in the civil war.  Essentially, this deal creates a liberal solution (Security Council resolution, Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention) to the liberal problem (enforcing the chemical weapons taboo).  Richard Price would be proud.  At the same time, minimizing the chemical weapons issue allows all the major parties in the conflict to do what they wanted to do anyway:  revert to the pre-August 21 status quo.   

Second of all, it’s not like Obama was gaining much political traction with Congress or the American people or even the foreign policy community on this issue.  Politically, this solves a brewing political fiasco and would permit both the executive and legislative branches to focus on other things like, you know, funding and staffing the U.S. government

What about the problems?  What if the Syrian government tries to evade the deal?  The worst-case scenario is that, after a spell, we’re back to where we are now — with the benefit of the United States observing that it gave the UN route a fair shake.  Diplomatically, that’s still a win. This also holds, by the way, if the Syrian government defects and uses chemical weapons again.  Such an action after this kind of agreement puts far more diplomatic pressure on Assad’s backers than its critics.  Furthermore, chemical weapons are not like nuclear weapons — Syria possessing them isn’t really much of a military game-changer, nor are they really much of a proliferation risk.  Unlike with nuclear, enforcement here does not have to be 100 percent perfect.

What does this do to solve Syria’s civil war?  Absolutely nothing — but it was never clear that U.S. military intervention was going to end the civil war or solve Syria’s worsening humanitarian crisis.  I agree with my Bloggingheads diavlog partner Heather Hurlburt that Syria is not going away as a foreign policy problem.  This problem will recur.  But sometimes, in foreign policy, the best way to treat an intractable and seemingly incurable disease is to ameliorate the symptoms in the short term.  That’s what this deal would do.   

Despite a series of mistakes, screw-ups, u-turns, and flubs, it’s possible that the Obama administration can, at the end of the day, claim credit for forcing Syria’s regime into relinquishing its chemical weapons stockpile and signing on to the convention banning its use. 

Take the deal. Take it now.

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