What Does Obama Get from a Syria Compromise Besides Political Relief?

Things are falling into place for the Kerry/Putin Surprise Solution to US Intervention in Syria. France will bring a proposal to the UN; Syria and Russia and the United States and China have endorsed. And now the problems begin.

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Things are falling into place for the Kerry/Putin Surprise Solution to U.S. Intervention in Syria. France will bring a proposal to the UN; Syria and Russia and the United States and China have endorsed it. Everyone is happy. Except that the actual collection of chemical weapons is enormously tricky. And everyone is happy — except for the Syrian rebels.

Early Monday morning, only a handful of people knew that a breakthrough was even this close. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a seemingly off-the-cuff response to a a question from a CBS reporter, suggested that if Syria gave up its chemical weapons, we could avoid inserting ourselves into the conflict. It wasn't that accidental — the idea had been raised in conversation between presidents Obama and Putin during the G20 summit last week, as Obama acknowledged on Monday and Putin did on Tuesday. Syria has formally agreed to the idea. Russia is hoping to flesh out a concrete plan, according to Reuters; France wants to bring one to the U.N., as The New York Times reports. (The paper's editorial board also endorsed the idea.) If a concrete plan is formalized, it appears that there will be no more vetoes at the U.N. Security Council from Russia or China.

From the standpoint of American politics, the shift is sudden and severe. A president facing the difficult task of convincing the nation of the need for war with a speech from the Oval Office now simply has to make the case for a brokered compromise. Those on Capitol Hill who backed the call for force — usually quietly — are broadly relieved not to have to take an increasingly unpopular vote to that effect.

But back to those caveats. The process of identifying, collecting, and verifying Syria's cache of chemical weapons is the hangover from Monday's intoxicated celebration of peace. In January, Wired reported on the complexity of ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. Would the resolution, for example, mandate the collection of all of the precursor agents to the weapons as well, like rubbing alcohol? At the time the article was written, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who joined Kerry to make the case for action last week, offered an estimate of what it would take for the U.S. to remove the regime's weapons.

U.S. military officials have previously speculated that an intervention to take hold of an estimated 500 tons of chemical precursors would require 75,000 troops, a force larger than the one currently in Afghanistan. Panetta said the international community needs to establish a “process and procedure” for keeping the stockpiles under control — but only after [president Bashar al-]Assad falls, which is an uncertain proposition.

The task is simpler for Assad, should he be willing to tackle it. But, as Michael Crowley writes at Time, the plan is predicated on the idea that the international community can trust Assad to act in good faith.

[T]he process of sending inspectors or security forces to accomplish that task will take time, and Assad will have opportunities to delay and complicate it — perhaps buying himself time in the hope that the world’s attention and indignation will fade. As Roger Cohen of the New York Times noted on Twitter Monday night, Bosnian Serb forces forestalled NATO air strikes in the 1990s by making false promises to hand over their heavy weapons. In the 1990s, Saddam mastered the art of delaying and deceiving U.N. weapons inspection teams.

Unlike in Iraq, peacekeepers tasked with collecting and verifying Assad's cache would be entering active war zones, in some cases almost certainly needing to transport unstable chemical elements through areas being actively contested by the rebels. This offers Assad an excuse for delay, should he seek it; it could necessitate delays of the UN's own creation.

The compromise isn't meant to address the conflict at all, of course. Last week, the Washington Post's Max Fisher wrote a thoughtful column seeking to distinguish between the debate in America, which centered around our country's tangential role in the conflict, and proposals to actually stem the conflict. Both Obama and his proxy, Hillary Clinton, prominently mentioned the need for a diplomatic resolution to the war itself as part of their endorsement of the compromise. But that is clearly another step down the line. The United States has been disinterested in resolving the Syria conflict. If we manage to largely extricate ourselves from our current involvement, those resolution efforts will likely slip down the priority list again. It's little surprise, then, that Syria's rebels are skeptical about the plan, as reported by BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray.

“If this was supposed to be a real proposal, it would include accountability for those who committed the crimes and killed 1400 people with chemical weapons, and that’s Assad,” [Syrian coalition representative Dr. Najib] Ghadbian said. “And it would include a comprehensive political solution along the lines of Geneva.”

Unfortunately for Ghadbian, Barack Obama isn't trying to placate the rebels of Syria — he's trying to placate the rebels in his party on Capitol Hill.

All sides are optimistic that an agreement might, at least, disarm the most deadly and criminal component of Assad's war machine. Even if there are delays and disputes over implementation, the creation of an agreement could offer one eventual benefit for both the rebels in Syria and members of Congress. It could establish a true global red line, one that the president doesn't need to refer to as a concept, but rather can point to and say: We all agreed. If Assad is tempted to slow the process of turning over his weapons or, worse, uses them again out of desperation, it's hard to believe that Obama would see similar roadblocks from politicians of any nation.

That too may be overly optimistic.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.