International

Russian chemical weapons compromise: What's in it for Assad?

Assad may have more to gain than Russian goodwill by embracing the chemical-weapons compromise

In this Thursday photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks with a corespondent from Russia's state Rossiya 24 news channel.
AP/SANA

It's obviously unpleasant to be on the receiving end of American airstrikes -- as President Barack Obama put it Tuesday, "the U.S. military doesn't do pinpricks." But when the Obama administration began calling for a military response to last month's chemical weapons-attack that the U.S. believes was carried out by Syrian security forces, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seemed non-plussed. Assad himself suggested that America risked harming its own interests.

"The first question they should ask themselves, is what do wars give America? Till now, nothing. No political gain, no economic gain, no good reputation," he told Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast Monday. "If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else."

Assad had good reason to feel smug and secure: The Obama administration had promised that any U.S. action would be calibrated to avoid tipping the balance of Syria's two-and-a-half-year civil war, which Washington fears could deepen the country's chaos and provide an opening for al-Qaeda.

Still, in the face of threatened U.S. action, the Assad regime appears to have agreed to a Russian compromise to give up its chemical weapons, allowing them to be put under international control. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced Saturday that the two countries have agreed to a framework for removing the weapons.

The plan came two days after Syria's ambassador to the U.N. said Thursday that the country had for the first time joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria's formal application to the join the Convention appears to be the first stage of what leaks in Russian newspapers are saying is a four-stage plan, in keeping with the Convention's rules, which would include declaring production and storage sites, inviting inspectors, and then deciding with the inspectors how and by whom stockpiles should be destroyed. The move was all the more surprising considering that the Syrian government until now has never even admitted to having chemical weapons, a mirror of sorts to Israel's long-held policy of strategic ambiguity on nuclear weapons.

So, why the about face?

It may be that the Assad regime has no choice but to appear to oblige its Russian patron by playing its part in President Vladimir Putin's diplomatic game of acting as peacekeeper and embarrassing the U.S. After all, without Moscow's support and its veto power at the U.N. Security Council, Assad would have been much more easily isolated internationally, and vulnerable to international intervention. Moreover, Syria is dependent on Russian arms sales, including recently delivered advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles -- and the cash crunch in Damascus means that Russian credit has been essential in the regime's ability to resupply its military.

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But Assad may have more to gain than Russian goodwill by embracing the chemical-weapons compromise. Now that the general boundaries of a defensible mini-state has emerged on the battlefield, roughly from Damascus to the Mediterranean, time increasingly appears to be on Assad's side. Chemical-weapons experts predict that securing and dismantling Syria's arsenal will be an epic project lasting several years, and would require the deployment of thousands of foreign troops on the ground -- some of whom would almost certainly find themselves caught in the crossfire of a civil war. Cooperation with the Chemical Weapons Convention, in fact, may present Assad with ample opportunities to drag out a process that makes the regime a key partner in an internationally approved disarmament process. By cooperating but drawing out the process, the regime potentially buys time to carry on its sectarian cleansing campaign.

The diplomatic back-and-forth created by the Russian proposal has already drained momentum from the White House push for military, with the U.S. Congress dropping a vote on the resolution to support that option. No surprise, then, that Syria's rebel opposition has vociferously rejected the Russian proposal.

"We call for strikes and we warn the international community that this regime tells lies, and the liar Putin is its teacher," Free Syrian Army leader Salim Idris told Al-Jazeera Wednesday.

Now that the U.S. and Russia have agreed on a plan to dispose of Assad's chemical arsenal, slowly giving up those weapons might not even be a bad strategy for Assad. After all, chemical weapons-capability works better as a strategic asset rather than a tactical weapon, and the Syrian government can keep killing its own people with or without them. The regime is believed by analysts to have acquired its chemical-weapons arsenal as a relatively inexpensive low-tech strategic counter to Israel's overwhelming military superiority and undisclosed nuclear arsenal –- indeed, Syria's ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al-Jaafari, said Thursday that "the chemical weapons in Syria are a mere deterrence against the Israeli nuclear arsenal."

But Israel, which is increasingly concerned about the rise of extremist rebel groups in Syria, may no longer be seen as much of a threat to the survival of the Assad regime. Many in Israel's security establishment are mindful of the fact that rhetoric and support for Hezbollah and Hamas aside, successive Assad regimes have kept the Israeli-Syrian border quiet for the past four decades.

Of course, there are risks for Assad if a credible weapons-collection program gets underway. The deal could begin to undermine the logic of Assad's argument that he is indispensable to regional stability on the grounds that the collapse of his regime could potentially put chemical weapons in the hands of Hezbollah, al-Qaeda or both. The introduction of an international force into Syria might also unintentionally create international witnesses to the regime's atrocities.

The recent developments coming from talks about Syria's chemical weapons arsenal could also be the start of the kind of diplomatic brokering -- bringing together the main foreign powers fueling the proxy civil war inside Syria -- required to end the war. And if Russia and Iran are willing to throw Assad's chemical-weapons program under the bus, perhaps -- for the right diplomatic price -- they might someday do the same to Assad himself. But in the short term, at least, Assad seems to be signing on to a process that potentially makes him an instrumental player in negotiations over Syria's fate for years to come.

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