The U.S.-Russian Deal on Syria: A Victory for Assad

The agreement struck in Geneva on chemical weapons effectively strengthens the Syrian strongman by removing the threat of American military involvement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announce a deal on the disposition of Syrian chemical weapons. (Reuters)

A deal with Russia on chemical weapons may be a "win" for President Obama but only in the narrowest sense. He managed to avoid a war he desperately did not want. But with the near-obsessive focus on chemical-weapons use, the core issues have been pushed to the side. These were always more or less the same -- a regime bent on killing and terrorizing its own people and a brutal civil war spilling over into the rest of the region, fanning sectarian strife and destabilizing Syria's neighbors.

For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than "punished" as originally planned. He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return. Obscured in the debate of the past few weeks is that chemical weapons were never central to the Syrian regime's military strategy. It doesn't need to use chemical weapons. In other words, even if the regime does comply with inspections (which could drag on for months if not years), it will have little import for the broader civil war, which Assad remains intent on winning.

If anything, Assad finds himself in a stronger position. Now, he can get away with nearly anything -- as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons, which, unlike the chemical kind, are responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 deaths so far in the civil war. Let's say Assad intensifies the bombardment of villages and cities using aircraft and artillery. What if there are more summary executions, more indiscriminate slaughter? What we have already seen is terrible, of course, but it is not the worst Assad can do with conventional weapons.

Assad and his Russian backers played on Obama's most evident weakness, exploiting his desire to find a way -- any way -- out of military action. There was a threat of military force, but it was a weak and not entirely credible one, and this has only been further confirmed by the events of the last few weeks. Assad is still in power, prosecuting his war. Before the "deal," Assad had to at least worry about the possibility of military intervention and modulate his daily kill rate accordingly.

For this reason, the focus on chemical weapon use was, as some have put it, "obscene." It concerned itself not with the killing itself but with the method. As I wrote here months ago, the Obama Administration's "red line" sent a disturbing message, implying that anything short of chemical weapon use -- the continued mass slaughter of civilians by other means, for instance -- was, in effect, permissible. Now that message will have been reinforced once again. What should have been about helping move Syria toward a resolution of its terrible, tragic conflict has now been turned into a cynical cat-and-mouse game over chemical weapons.

It is difficult to imagine Obama going back to Congress and the American people sometime in the near future and making an entirely different case that has nothing to do with chemical weapons and everything to do with stopping mass slaughter and shifting the military balance on the ground. That was not the case Obama and senior officials made this time, so how would they justify making it three or four months from now? As long as Assad gives the appearance of being mildly compliant on chemical weapons, he will be safe. 

One might be forgiven for thinking that this was Assad's plan all along, to use chemical weapons as bait, to agree to inspections after using them, and then to return to conventional killing. It is doubtful Assad is this intelligent. But he was smart enough to use American indecision and war-weariness to his advantage. Even on the one thing the Obama Administration has seemed most adamant about -- enforcing the international norm against chemical weapons -- the message being sent remains unclear. To the extent that other strongmen are watching this sorry episode and using it to decide whether to use chemical weapons -- a somewhat dubious proposition to start with -- they are likely to learn a rather different lesson: It may have very well worked for Assad, so why can't it work for us?

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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