Why the UN Syria Chemical Weapons Deal Isn't Nearly As Good As You Think

This now-UN-backed-chemical-weapons-disarmament-deal would be an historic breakthrough moment for the world for chemical weapons control, but it won't stop the war and both Assad and Russia had very strong, self-interested reasons for making this deal.

How security can possibly realistically be provided for inspectors is beyond me, and it would likely be a years-long process that, according to this sound analysis, probably won’t work anyway, as it depends on a lot of ifs: if the inspections actually happen and if Assad actually cooperates and if disarmament follows and if all this can happen in the midst of a civil war that is all over Syria with shifting, nebulous battle lines.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say it works. “Wait!” you may be saying, “Russia has come to the rescue! Assad will be disarmed, and the war in Syria will be solved,” to which I say, even if disarmament happens (and it may), that will not stop this refugee-making-machine of a war, and the killing would go on and on.

The regime that killed 98% of its victims with conventional weapons and the rebels who very likely don’t have those weapons and “almost certainly (HRW)” didn’t carry out those attacks will only both continue their attacks, as the reasons any side fights in this conflict never had anything to do with chemical weapons. So even with a robust UN chemical weapons inspections and disarmament process, there’s little reason to think that this will do much to stop the war.

Assad is desperately trying to reassert his sovereignty over Syria. Noting this desperation, and assuming his government’s recent actions are in (mostly) good faith, Assad’s agreeing to give up chemical weapons and allow international inspectors into Syria can be seen as a move designed to keep himself in power and to avoid foreign intervention on the side of Syria’s rebels. Assad, for his part, after seeing that reluctant and hedging Obama meant business when it came to large scale use of chemical weapons, likely calculated that as powerful and effective as chemical weapons were, he had more to gain by giving them up when doing so meant avoiding a very likely Western intervention that, for all the statements about being a limited strike, could have crippled his precious air force and destroyed much of his heavy weaponry and military infrastructure that gives him his edge over the rebels. Over time, the effects of such a strike could lead to the toppling of his regime, especially with increased Western military support for certain rebel groups.

Assad must have looked at this disarmament offer of Kerry’s and then Russia’s as a way to stay in power and keep his military intact, a military that was able to kill 98 out of every 100 Syrians it killed with guns, tanks, artillery, and planes all not armed with chemical weapons. Assad will actually be in a stronger position, and far less vulnerable, without chemical weapons: by giving them up, he made it that much harder for the West to bomb him, and has just bought an extended warranty on his regime from the Russians. He is even demanding the U.S. drop its threat to attack and stop arming any rebels as part of this agreement, an agreement which may even prolong the war it if the world steps back because of it.

Russia, a longtime supporter and ally of Assad, may very well have calculated both that it could look the part of the hero in disarming him, and at the same time keep its ally (and arms customer) in power by removing Obama’s largest stated reason for an impending U.S. strike. Russia would have been humiliated both by doing almost nothing to help the Syrian people and being seen as the supporter of a mass murderer of children, and by the U.S. helping to topple, in the long run, Russia’s only major ally in the Middle East, with Russia powerless to stop it. The Russian naval base in Syria — Russia’s only military base outside the former USSR — would virtually certainly not be maintained by Syria if rebels whose comrades were killed by Assad’s Russian weapons came to power.

So this deal made sense for both Syria and Russia, and it does little to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people or the region as a whole.