Resounding defeat

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks to the media in Moscow, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The news Syria has agreed, in principle, to the Russian proposal to hand over its chemical weapons to international control is being hailed on all sides as victory.

The Syrian regime can barely contain its glee at avoiding a U.S. strike – despite last week’s never-ending assurances they would not only survive but would defeat any attack. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the Russian initiative “would knock the chairs from under the legs of the American aggression.”

The regime is likely to continue with its face-saving declarations of victory, but this newest development is a clear defeat for President Bashar Assad. Syria had spent decades building its chemical weapons stockpile – as a deterrent against any attack by Israel. Destroying these stockpiles is a price Assad cannot be happy to pay.

If there is any question that desperation has driven Assad to agree to this, consider the risk it opens him up to: Moammar Gadhafi unilaterally dismantled Libya’s weapons of mass destruction program in 2004 in the face of American threats – it did not save him.

From the very beginning of the conflict, U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear that he was reticent to directly involve the United States in the Syria conflict. He has insisted that any military action would be focused on deterring any further use of chemical weapons by the regime. If this Russian initiative comes to fruition, Obama has achieved his objectives. The U.S. will not have intervened, and the threat of Assad using chemical weapons will be removed.

Of course, Obama is not declaring victory yet – and rightfully so. The devil is in the details, especially when dealing with a ruler whose back is up against the wall in a rebellion. In the coming days, the exact wording of a U.N. Security Council resolution enacting the Russian initiative will be debated, and the framework for the climb down from this standoff will become clearer.

It is imperative that a strict, reasonably short timeframe be established for both the disarming and verification. It will be all too easy to claim that the situation is too unstable for inspectors to confirm the progress of the regime in handing over their stockpiles. This will be unacceptable, and the international community must demand immediate results.

The threat of military action – preferably as established under the forthcoming Security Council resolution and not as a unilateral action by the U.S. – must remain as incentive for Assad to honor his promise.

Even if these obstacles are overcome, only one small part of the crisis in Syria will be solved. There are still hundreds of Syrians dying every day and this will continue until a political solution is reached. But solving this standoff will be cause for optimism. International diplomacy doesn’t happen by chance or luck – it requires mutual trust and building on previous successes. If these negotiations bear fruit, they can help pave the way toward further progress on agreeing a political transition process to end the Syrian civil war.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2013, on page 7.




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