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Russian Proposal on Chemical Weapons Just Might Resolve Syria Face-off

Damascus, Washington and, of course, Moscow could all gain if Assad hands over chemical weapons and Obama holds off on attack; but what about the Syrian people?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Ten days after U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to seek congressional approval for attacking Syria, a possible exit route from his Syrian dilemma presented itself Monday. Just as Congress was about to start debating the president’s request to authorize a military strike, Moscow proposed an alternative: If Washington agrees not to attack, Syrian President Bashar Assad will hand over his chemical weapons to international inspectors, who will eventually destroy them.

The Russian proposal still contains many unknowns, and it could turn out to be nothing but an attempt to buy time for Assad. Washington is consequently displaying deep skepticism. Nevertheless, it’s also possible that a solution to the crisis truly did begin to take shape on Monday night.

Syria’s positive response to the Russian proposal, which was unveiled at a joint press conference of both countries’ foreign ministers, is no surprise. Assad surely understands that the harsh international response to the massacre his troops perpetrated with chemical weapons on August 21 will make it much harder for him to use such weapons again in any case, and he can always claim he agreed to the transfer the weapons to prevent them from falling into the opposition’s hands.

If a deal of this sort is reached, Assad could legitimately view it as an achievement. Not only did he refrain from panic at the threat of an American attack, and not only did such an attack ultimately not take place, but the crisis will have highlighted the strength of his coalition of international backers comprised of Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah.

Obama also has much to gain from such a deal. He is still having trouble mobilizing support in Congress for military action opposed by the American public as well as the international community. If most of the chemical weapons are removed from Syria, Obama can say he achieved his goal – ensuring that they won’t be used again – while sparing himself both a political showdown in Washington and the potential complications of military action.

If a deal like the one Moscow is proposing does ultimately materialize, some will doubtless claim this was Obama’s plan all along: He went to the brink to achieve his desired outcome of extracting a significant concession from Syria without actually launching an attack. But a close examination of the president’s words and actions over the last few weeks points to a different conclusion. From Israel’s standpoint, at least, Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to be flip-flopping and ad-libbing, often reacting belatedly to events that seemed to take them by surprise. It’s highly doubtful there was any clever plan or grand strategy here.

Russia, of course, will be the big winner, having blocked an American attack, rescued its protégé and disabled a land mine that could have set off major shock waves.

Indeed, the only party that won’t gain from such a deal is the Syrian people. Despite their public opposition to an American strike, it seems that many Syrians didn’t consider it a worse option than the status quo. From their perspective, the restoration of the red line against chemical weapons merely means that both Assad and the rebels can keep slaughtering civilians with international impunity, using any weapons except the chemical kind.

In a paper published by Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center on Monday, Eyal Zisser, a professor of Middle Eastern and African history, argued that Assad has been waging a war of annihilation against the rebels and their civilian supporters in recent months, with the goal of exterminating or expelling them from areas his army seeks to recapture. The Syrian civil war, Zisser wrote, has been a war of attrition – a collection of localized tactical engagements between small groups of rebels and small numbers of Syrian troops. Thus, unless American intervention shuffles the cards, no single battle is likely to decide the outcome.

On Monday night, in view of his domestic difficulties and the new Russian proposal, the chances that Obama would order an attack seemed to be fading, despite his tough-sounding rhetoric. Nevertheless, a final decision is still some ways off. As always, the devil is in the details, and the Russian proposal could yet be rejected if it fails to get over any number of obstacles, leading America to attack after all.

Either way, it seems that to a large extent, the events of the past few weeks can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the crisis liable to erupt next year over the activities of another Russian ally: Iran. A similar debate can be expected over Tehran’s nuclear program and a similar proposal is likely to be made, just as it was four years ago, with Russia volunteering to take friendly custody of the materiel in question (in Iran’s case, enriched uranium).

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reiterated Monday night that Israel would respond harshly to any attempt by its enemies to drag it into the Syrian conflict. But it might be wiser for Israel to curb its public announcements and silently await the decisions on a possible Syria strike, which in any case will be made in Washington and Moscow rather than Jerusalem.

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks past U.S. President Barack Obama during a group photo at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, September 6, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem gives a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on September 9, 2013 following a meeting in Moscow. Credit: AFP

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