Winning without chemical weapons

If Damascus hands over its nonconventional arms to international supervision, the move could strengthen Assad while embarrassing the US

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

This 1994 photo posted on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, purports to show then-captain Bashar Assad, looking at documents during a military project in Syria (photo credit: AP/Syrian Presidency via Facebook)
This 1994 photo posted on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, purports to show then-captain Bashar Assad, looking at documents during a military project in Syria (photo credit: AP/Syrian Presidency via Facebook)

You’ve got to tip your hat to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The man whose life mission over the past few months was to head-butt the US and weaken its position around the world, and especially in the Middle East, has managed to do it again.

On the very day the US Congress finally gathered to discuss a possible strike against Syria; just as it finally appeared Barack Obama might manage to muster the majority he needs for a military operation; as the US president was scheduled for six national TV appearances about Syria — Putin pulled the carpet from under Obama’s feet and removed the impetus behind an American attack.

Moscow seems to have managed to get Damascus to agree in principle to international supervision over its chemical weapons stockpile. The details of the Russian proposal aren’t clear yet, but it has apparently been designed to ostensibly meet the West’s demand this entire time — that Syria hand over its chemical weapons cache to a third party. It’s possible the offer will provide Obama, when the time comes, with a way out of his previous statements about attacking the Syrian regime.

On the Syrian side, President Bashar Assad had quite a few reasons to welcome the Russian proposal. If he agrees to hand over the chemical weapons he has, not only could he avoid a US military strike, he’ll also preserve the current situation in Syria, which gives him and his army an advantage over the disorganized and fragmented opposition.

Free Syrian Army head General Salim Idris reacted furiously to the proposal, telling Al Jazeera that the Syrian regime was lying to the West and was impossible to trust, a sign of just how bad it is for those opposing Assad. Israel’s President Shimon Peres, incidentally, said just the same: “The Syrians are not trustworthy.”

However, Assad will be seen by many in the West, including in the US, as a pragmatic player “to do business with.” It’s almost unnecessary to mention that a refusal of this offer from Damascus’s most important ally would have caused Russia at least to ignore a Western attack, and in the worst scenario, have given the green light for his replacement.

It’s also important to remember that the chemical weapons used by Assad so far didn’t really help him in the battlefield. Over the past year he’s used chemical weapons around 13 times, mainly for tactical reasons — like conquering an area and clearing it of opposition fighters and local population — and not a strategic goal like destroying those fighting him. The incident outside Damascus on August 21 was an exception.

In other words, the Syrian president can reach broadly similar results in his fight against the opposition using conventional weapons, with a little bit more effort and some more casualties on his side.

Yet still, for Assad, there are disadvantages to the Russian offer. The chemical weapons he controls are the “doomsday weapon” of Syria. They’re threatening and terrorizing Israel and the West, and arguably constitute the final obstacle preventing the West from broad intervention in Syria.

Losing these weapons could endanger Assad and put him in a situation similar to that of the defenseless Muammar Ghaddafi. If Ghaddafi had possessed nuclear weapons, which he had tried to obtain, the West might have eschewed military action in Libya and he might have dealt with the opposition in his country.

The American response to Syria’s announcement that “it gladly accepts the Russian offer to hand over its chemical weapons to international supervision” is not yet clear.

On Monday, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said the White House would “take a hard look at” the Russian proposal. However, Secretary of State John Kerry has insisted his comments that giving up the arms could ward off a potential strike were not a diplomatic opening.

Until the specifics of the offer, and the US position in response, are clearer, we’ll probably continue to hear threats from the Syrian-Iranian axis meant to frighten Israel and weaken support in Congress and among the American public for an attack. Syria and Iran too, it appears, have decided to take part in Putin’s efforts to embarrass Obama.

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