What is Syria Going to Do Next?
President Barack Obama has said he will put plans for U.S. military action against Syria on hold if the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agrees to place its chemical weapons under international control. While Congress debated authorizing an attack, Russia proposed on Monday that Syria relinquish its chemical weapons — a proposal that Syria reportedly "welcomed."
"We are calling on the Syrian authorities [to] not only agree on putting chemical weapons storage under international control but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. "We have passed our offer to [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid al-Moualem and hope to receive a fast and positive answer."
After meeting with the Russian parliament speaker, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government agreed to the Russian initiative to "derail the U.S. aggression." Officials from both countries are now working to prepare a more detailed plan of action to be presented shortly and finalized with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons.
Many countries have criticized the proposed U.S. military attack and are in favor of a more peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. While Russia's proposal may be the first peaceful step towards a solution to the Syrian crisis, the proposal is one element of an infinitely more complex solution. We must consider the possible repercussions to the plan to determine if it is a feasible solution to ending the use of chemical warfare in Syria, or is just a distraction from the real problem.
For example, this is the scenario if all were to go well:
The UN Security Council will pass a resolution demanding Syria make its chemical weapons program public, place it under international control and dismantle it, or face "extremely serious consequences," as France noted on Tuesday. Assad will admit that Syria does in fact have chemical weapons, and offers full disclosure of the weapons' whereabouts, manufacturing and storage information (although the Assad regime has neither confirmed nor denied it possesses chemical weapons). UN inspectors will verify Assad's declaration, enter Syria to check if the disclosure matches up, and investigate how much chemical weaponry the country has been stockpiling and for how long. Based on their findings, UN-appointed experts will destroy all the weapons.
Although Syria's potential agreement with Russia's proposal is a could be a positive development, there are additional hurdles to the disarmament.
For example, even if all goes as planned, the execution of this plan could take "years," according to Dina Esfandiary, a WMD expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and not simply "in the next week," as John Kerry has said. Assad has not yet voluntarily disclosed any information about the existence of possible chemical weapons in the country, so it is unlikely he will suddenly come clean on the manufacture, stockpiling, and use of poison gas to avoid a military attack.
Syria is a country at war with rebels, which have been pushing for a shift in power for the last two-and-a-half years. So far, earlier peace talks and negotiations that were backed by both Russia and the U.S. were met with skepticism and additional demands from the Syrian opposition. And currently, the Syrian opposition seems dead set against the new proposal in the works.
"I really believe that this regime has had so many opportunities and we shouldn't wait. We need immediate accountability. I doubt very much that the regime would give up its stockpile of chemical weapons just to avert a strike," said Khalid Saleh, official spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition. "The regime has committed so many crimes against humanity and was allowed to get away with it. A delay would embolden the regime more."
Even if the proposal effectively cleaned up Syria's speculated stockpile of poison gas, it does not address the problem Syrian opposition forces have been fighting to remove so far: President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict, which began during the Arab Spring movement when pro-democracy protests broke out in Syria in 2011, has resulted in a two-year struggle against the Assad regime for freedom, democracy, and dignity. The proposal to disarm Syria's chemical weapons, therefore, does not address the primary reason the country has remained in conflict.
Whether or not this peace plan is successful or becomes a distraction, it is the only diplomatic option on the table right now. Pending Syria's official and actionable response to the terms of the formal proposal, we can only wait and see how this solution will play out now and in the long run.