As Heidi Heitkamp said this morning, don’t think of it as placing your trust in Assad. Think of it as placing your trust in Vladimir Putin.
An offer we can’t refuse?
According to Syrian state TV, Syria on Tuesday accepted Russia’s proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry floated the idea in what appeared to be an off-the-cuff comment suggesting it would be the only way for Syria to avoid a punishing Western military strike.
Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said the country was ready to disclose the location of its chemical weapons, halt production and show facilities to representatives of Russia, the United Nations and other states, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia is working on a “workable, clear, specific plan” and said it would be presented soon.
Moallem also said they’d sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Whether that’s conditioned upon the U.S. renouncing force, as Putin suggested this morning, or something they’re going to do unconditionally is unclear. Good enough for the U.S. to save face, though? Not quite yet, says Kerry:
Secretary of State John Kerry says Syria must do more than just declare its chemical weapons stockpiles and sign the international treaty that bans them if it wants a Russian-led effort to avert U.S. military strikes to work.
Just minutes after Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime announced Tuesday that it would take those steps, Kerry said he hoped that it would “go further” in the interests of peace. He said the Syrian government must “live up to what they said just said they would do” and then cooperate with Russia “to work out a formula by which those weapons could be transferred to international control and destroyed.”
Assad’s not going to give up all of his gas but maybe he’ll give up enough to let the west claim “victory.” If worse comes to worst, Iran and/or Russia will resupply him down the line. We’ve reached the broken-record stage of Syria blogging at this point, so let me be a broken record on this point: All the White House really wants from this fiasco is a promise that Assad won’t cause them another headache by using WMD again. They don’t care if he owns chemical weapons, which Syria has had for decades. They don’t even much care if he uses them on a small, plausibly deniable scale. After all, U.S. intelligence looked the other way at Syrian gas attacks for more than a year, per the LA Times. What the west cares about is not being dragged into the Syrian maelstrom. Assad’s almost unpardonable sin here was using WMD on a large enough scale that the White House had to do something to save face. The unspoken deal was that he’s free to kill Syrians (preferably jihadis) in whatever numbers he likes so long as he respects the taboo against chem/bio/nuclear. When he crossed the line, he forced a situation where someone, either the U.S. or Assad himself, was going to lose face. And that’s a dangerous spot given how many major powers are involved in the Syria mess.
So, who volunteers to lose face in the name of resolving this diplomatically? Easy: Assad does, because ultimately he doesn’t care about that. He wants to win the war and hold onto power and he’s in the process of doing so. If he can keep the U.S. off the battlefield by eating a little crow, it’s worth it. The timing is perfect too since now Obama can claim “victory” in his speech tonight, which ought to further dampen Americans’ enthusiasm for a strike they already perceive as unnecessary. In fact, the closer Assad gets to winning, the more incentive he has to present himself as a kinda sorta “responsible” international player. If he does end up crushing the rebels, he’ll want to repair relations with the west as much as possible. Pretending to give up his WMD helps with that. The deal that you’re going to see at the UN, I suspect, is Putin agreeing that the U.S. shouldn’t have to take the threat of unilateral force off the table (which is fine since force won’t be used now) in return for us agreeing to water down the language of the eventual Security Council resolution so that Assad’s noncompliance doesn’t automatically trigger an attack. O wants to look tough without having to be tough. That’s the perfect way to give him what he wants. Putin’s blather this morning was just his way of pushing a demand that he knows he’ll have to concede later in return for something more valuable.
Kerry announced this afternoon that he’ll be meeting the Russian FM in Geneva on Thursday to discuss further terms of the
face-saving disarmament, so let’s look forward to that. Exit quotation from young genius Ezra Klein:
I can't believe the White House's strategy on Syria is working out this well. I doubt they can, either.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) September 10, 2013