Intention or not, the statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avoid a U.S. military strike by quickly putting all of its chemical weapons capability under international inspection opens up an important opportunity to avoid direct U.S. strikes. The White House is right to interpret any positive response by Russia and Syria to this off the cuff proposal as a sign that the debate over the use of military force by the United States has both capitols worried. As such, tactically delaying a vote in Congress a few days makes sense. The response, which the U.S. should pursue with enthusiasm, should also lead all members of Congress leaning against authorizing the use of force to think again about such a vote.
That the Russian government has endorsed the proposal and Syrian officials have spoken favorably about it mean the following scenarios are possible:
We have a deal – Russia and the U.S. convince Assad’s force to put all CW and related sites under immediate inspection by international forces, leading quickly (in a few months) to their destruction. This would be, by far the best outcome and if implemented faithfully achieve the same goal as the planned U.S. strike – degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. Monitors of such control and elimination – preferably from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or OPCW, the institution established by the Chemical Weapons Convention – would have to be protected and empowered to report any violations or movement of CW stocks to the UN Security Council. Moreover, their role would have to be temporary and only serve as a short prelude to the rapid demilitarization of Syria’s massive chemical weapons.
At the same time, any such an effort would need a solid international legal basis. No time exists for Syria’s signature and accession to the CWC as a formal member. As such, the U.S. should insist that Syria’s leaders make a political commitment to abide by the CWC, followed immediately by a binding U.N. Security Resolution codifying any Syrian decision. While Russia might balk at a UNSC document, no stand alone political commitment from Assad should be acceptable and Russia would have little excuse to oppose such a document if Assad had endorsed the initiative. Russian endorsement of this resolution would be a great improvement from their past opposition to any such resolutions on Syria from the UNSC. It would be a challenge, though not impossible, for Russia to oppose such a document after having endorsed the idea first posed by Kerry.
Cat and Mouse, Syrian Style – In this scenario, Syria conditionally accepts Kerry’s proposal but delays any real steps to implement. Such a bait and switch tactic must not be allowed to derail the Congressional vote on the use of force. Moreover, the United States should do everything it can to cloak this proposal as a joint US-Russian initiative. As such, any balk attempt by Syria would invest Russia in taking stronger action against its erstwhile ally. While delay by Damascus might not alter Russia’s strategic view, should Assad reject a way out of U.S. strikes without undermining his continued hold on power, Russia might finally recognize that its own international position is undermined by its steadfast refusal to address the horrific use of CW by the regime.
Thanks but no thanks – We may find out very quickly that Syria and Russia are not serious about pursuing Kerry’s proposal. Any effort to delay, obfuscate or overly complicate the political agreement by Assad to eliminate his CW should put the White House and Congress right back where they woke up Monday morning, with a tough vote and no good outcome – but one where no action is arguably worse than a limited strike to reestablish the norm against CW use by Assad.
In the end, the Congress will likely have to vote on the possible use of force by the United States in Syria. However, just the threat has had an influence on Syria that thirty years of political pressure from all manner of states has failed to achieve. If there is any chance Syria will admit its possession of CW, and take real and fast steps to put them under international control leading to their elimination, it is a chance worth pursuing.