A lot of commentators are unhappy about Vladimir Putin’s proposal to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons. But it seems to me that this is a good solution for everyone, and Putin is to be congratulated for playing a useful role. If this ends up boosting Russia’s prestige, it is deserved.
Let’s suppose things had gone as they were going before Putin’s intervention. There seems a good chance Obama would have lost his vote in Congress for action against Syria. Result: disaster for US diplomacy, and so much for the international ban on chemical weapons. If, on the other hand, Obama won the congressional vote, he would have either lobbed a few missiles at Syria, or done more extensive bombing. Either would have killed a lot of people. This is not good. Would it, despite this, have had worthwhile results? It is hard to say. An assault that did too little damage would do nothing to deter the use of chemical weapons the next time. It might even boost Assad’s prestige. An assault that did too much damage might throw the Syrian civil war to a rebel faction that is hostile to the West. It’s a choice even Hobson might not wish to make. A full-scale US ground assault might have been the ideal response, as I have argued, but that was not in the cards this time. It looked as though any possible congressional resolution was going to explicitly rule that out.
By contrast, Putin’s proposal, if it pans out, obliges Assad to accept and sign on for the international prohibition on chemical weapons. The ban is confirmed and upheld. One could argue that this is all a sham, that Assad is not really going to give up all his chemical weapons, and there is no way of confirming that he has. All fair enough, but beside the point. With Putin’s proposal, he cannot use them again. If he does, he is caught in a big lie; he has very clearly his own treaty obligations; and, not least, he has embarrassed Russia and Putin.
|At the G8 summit.|
In such an event, Obama should have far less trouble in getting Congress, the UN, and other governments to sign on to firm action against Syria—something he cannot seem to get now. The more so since he has demonstrated his good faith and reluctance to take the military option.
Will Assad, in the meantime, be able to strengthen his position? It seems unlikely. The element of surprise had already been lost; signing on to the Putin deal now can only give the US an opportunity to recover it. The use of chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus, in the first place, looked like desperation, and Assad’s willingness to seize this deal looks like desperation again. His days look numbered in any event. It may well be in everyone’s interest not to let his fall be too abrupt.
Okay, I’m struggling, but I just can’t see a downside to Putin’s deal. At the same time, Russia deserves credit for putting its prestige on the line here; this is not without risk.
And how much is this all going to cost the US, in blood or money?