Don’t set aside Syria

Rather than wash their hands of it, Congress should focus attention on the broader Syrian issues, including the damage that has been done to US credibility and to the strategic situation in the Middle East.  The reprieve this deal offers will likely prove short-lived.   

Most immediately, the agreement suggests that the Syrian opposition is effectively finished. Rebel Gen. Salim Idriss’s bitter remark over the weekend (“We don’t have any hope”) is a recognition that the world has seemingly acquiesced to Assad remaining in power.  Whether or not the rebels represent the bright future of Middle Eastern democracy is largely beside the point.  The message has been sent: an oppressive dictator that has flouted American “red lines” and used chemical weapons against his own people can live to tell about it while remaining in power.  

This fact was lost on no one and it is very likely that Assad agreeing to the disarmament framework was just a stalling tactic.  By decoupling the issues of WMD and the killing of Syrian civilians, the regime buys time and space to finish off the opposition. The U.S.-Russian agreement purportedly tables the threat of UN-sanctioned force. And despite tough talk that claims unilateral force is still on the table, it is highly unlikely the US or others will intervene or do anything serious about arming the opposition – moves that would jeopardize Syria’s compliance in disarming.

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Even if recent reports of convoys of trucks hauling chemicals out of country are false, what is the cost to Assad of reneging in 2014 before any stockpiles are actually transferred, but after the opposition is brutally eradicated with conventional weapons?  Moreover, if WMD are Syria’s trump card (as they appear to be) why give them up?  It may be from genuine fear of “unbelievably small” US strikes, but most recently, the general takeaway from Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya was not that good things come to dictators who forfeit their WMD programs. Quite the opposite – had Qaddafi retained his bargaining chip, he might not have met a bloody end in the streets of Sirte.

The Syrian situation has also altered power dynamics in the broader Middle East.  By what degree remains to be seen, but if the Great Game of international politics is a contest for relative gains, then in this round, the gains go to the wrong players – namely Syria, Iran, and Russia. Israel’s public shift today to call for Assad’s removal is telling, with Reuters reporting Israeli ambassador Michael Oren as saying, "The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut.”

In a clever – yet unsubtle – move, Russia and Syria have reminded the West that the latter’s chemical weapons are its best defense (or offense) against our ally Israel. This emphasis deftly serves several purposes. For one thing, it reminds potential antagonists not to push the regime too far, raising the specter of a strike on Israel. Lest this point be recognized too clearly as a threat, Putin suggested that the regime is the only thing standing between militants who have managed to access chemical weapons and are reportedly “preparing another attack – this time against Israel.”

Syria has known since the 1973 October War that it cannot defeat Israel on a conventional battlefield, so there is logic to keeping its unconventional options open.  Reminding the world of the danger these weapons pose to Israel – and of the intractable nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict – also makes disarming appear that much greater a sacrifice.  While the immediate optics of surrendering its stockpiles are of interest to the Syria, Iran also derives a geopolitical advantage.  Israel and Egypt are both widely acknowledged to possess WMD programs and the agreement leaves Iran and Syria well-positioned to point to a double standard, putting international pressure on its neighbors, and providing breathing room for Iran’s nuclear program.

The ramifications of the last few weeks may not be understood for some time and Congress should not abdicate its responsibility to oversee the conduct of US foreign policy.  Even if both Congress and the president can privately appreciate the political outcome of avoiding an authorization of force vote, we can ill afford to ignore the lessons that should be learned from a diplomatic debacle two years in the making.

None of this is to suggest that an effort to disarm Assad is worthless – far from it. But when it comes to Syria, and the price the world is effectively agreeing to pay in exchange for (one hopes) its chemical stockpiles, it’s worth considering the timeless admonition of John Foster Dulles: “Peace can be a cover whereby evil men perpetrate diabolical wrongs.”

Miles is a PhD student at Columbia University, concentrating in international relations with a focus on security studies and the Middle East. Bergner is an independent expert on national security policy issues and has written extensively about WMD and deterrence.