After a few weeks of turmoil and uncertainty, the international response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria appears to have finally been settled. The joint U.S.-Russian plan to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons has forestalled the need for a U.S. military strike. As such, the crisis in Syria has reached a new stage: ensuring that the current agreement goes forward as planned. This is where the recently released UN weapons inspectors’ report comes into play.
While many people have welcomed the diplomatic solution the current U.S.-Russian plan provides, there is also a lot of skepticism about whether the plan’s ambitious timeline can be met and whether Moscow and Damascus will act in good faith. The key to ensuring the plan goes forward as desired is to keep the pressure on Syria and Russia to uphold their end of the deal. It’s clear the agreement to disarm Syria was reached because Washington threatened to use force against the Assad regime. Therefore, keeping Damascus and Moscow on their toes is vital to ensuring the U.S. achieves its objective of a Syrian government that is no longer able or willing to use chemical weapons.
The UN report helps Washington achieve exactly this. One of the largest stumbling blocks in Obama’s push for action against Syria was the credibility of the intelligence. After botched and manipulated intelligence led the U.S. into a costly war in Iraq, many congressmen were skeptical of the administration’s argument that Assad’s government was the one that used chemical weapons. Russia and other allies of the Syrian regime were quick to take advantage of this suspicion by claiming it was the rebels who launched the attack and not the government in Damascus.
The UN report settles this debate once and for all. While the inspectors were not asked to assign culpability for the attack, their findings prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Assad’s forces were responsible, not the rebels.
By corroborating U.S. intelligence, the UN report helps strengthen the case for action if the deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons falls through. Throughout the negotiation process with Russia, U.S. officials repeatedly stressed they retained the right to use force if the agreement fails to achieve its objectives. The UN report keeps this threat of U.S. action credible by overcoming one of the main doubts about whether using force is justified or not. Ever since Moscow proposed its plan a week ago, the White House has kept to a clear and simple message: The UN plan to remove the chemical weapons is solely one option, not the only one. The UN report gives this approach fresh momentum and keeps the pressure on Assad and Putin to fulfill their side of the bargain.
In sum, the UN report greatly strengthens the hand of the U.S. Throughout this ordeal, many people have claimed Russia outplayed the U.S. and that Obama has appeared weak. Yet the reality is that Russia has now backed itself and Assad into a corner. Obama has maintained his right to strike if the UN plan goes sour and the UN report provides the justification to act if all else fails. If Moscow’s plan was to avoid the introduction of U.S. force into the Syrian conflict and all the uncontrollable variables that come along with such an action, it did a poor job of doing so. A U.S. strike remains on the table, whereas a few weeks ago it appeared any military action was headed for a loss on Capitol Hill. By giving Obama an out, Putin not only kept the possibility of a U.S. strike alive but now must ensure Assad abides by the terms of the U.S.-Russian agreement.
In other words, it was a big miscalculation and one that the recent UN report only serves to highlight.