One of the first rules of diplomacy is: Don’t speak in hypotheticals. So Secretary of State John Kerry made a major gaffe when he told reporters that if Syrian President Bashar Assad would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community” he could avoid a military strike. But Kerry’s off-the-cuff remark seems to have sparked the most promising diplomatic activity on Syria in months. Russia and France have gone into negotiations on a UN resolution to avoid a US strike. And Syria announced on Tuesday that it would sign an international treaty obligating it to destroy its chemical arsenal.
An outcome in which Assad hands over his chemical stockpile would be acceptable to President Obama, most of Congress, and the international community. Serious questions remain about whether Syria and Russia are acting in good faith. But if Russia’s offer to help secure Syria’s forbidden weapons is sincere, it would accomplish US goals far more effectively than a military strike. It would enforce the international prohibition on chemical weapons, deter the future use of those weapons, and degrade Assad’s military capabilities by relieving him of deadly poisons in his arsenal. It would also address the Obama administration’s greatest fear: that chemical weapons would be stolen by terrorists and used against Americans.
The plan, if it comes to fruition, would accomplish those goals without escalating the Syrian civil war and causing more civilian deaths. Should the effort grow out of a Security Council resolution, it would avoid the uncomfortable spectacle of Obama sidestepping the UN to enforce an international “norm.” For all the recent tensions between Washington and Moscow, the United States has worked with Russia constructively in the past to dismantle chemical weapons stockpiles in the former Soviet Union.
In this case, a deal is hardly guaranteed. Can Russia be convinced to allow a UN resolution to retain the threat of using force if Syria refuses — at the last minute — to turn over its weapons or uses chemical weapons again? Will Syria agree to relinquish its weapons on a more accelerated timetable than the Chemical Weapons Convention requires? Who will remove the chemical stockpiles? Where will the weapons be stored while they are awaiting destruction? If the parties are sincere, skilled diplomats could craft an agreement that would allow all sides to claim victory. Most importantly, Obama, who faced a potential defeat in Congress over his request for authorization to strike Syria, will have crafted a solution that both hawks and doves can support.
Last night, Obama asked Congress to postpone its consideration of military action while Kerry tries to forge a deal with Russia and Syria. But Congress could bolster the chances of an agreement by supporting a bipartisan effort in the Senate to pass a resolution giving Obama authority to strike at Syrian targets if Assad fails to relinquish his chemical weapons. That’s the kind of vote Americans should get behind.
Of course, removing chemical weapons in Syria in the midst of a civil war wouldn’t be easy. Skeptics note that US intelligence doesn’t know exactly where they are stored or how large a supply there is, making it impossible to verify that Syria has indeed surrendered all its chemical weapons. But those same challenges also make it less likely that a military strike will be effective.
Even if this proposal is a ploy by Russia and Syria to delay military action, the United States should call their bluff. Attempts to negotiate a serious deal will expose their true intentions, and international support for military action will be even greater.