Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons bargain with Russia and the United States offers another political and military lifeline to the Syrian president, just two years after he was dismissed in Washington as a “dead man walking”.
The deal, reached under the shadow of threatened U.S. air strikes and only after the intervention of Syria’s ally Moscow, does come at a cost to the Syrian leader – a fact which likely explains the muted response in Damascus when it was announced.
By requiring Assad to surrender a chemical weapons arsenal which until last week his government had barely acknowledged, it would strip him of both a fearsome military advantage over rebels at home and his most potent deterrent to any further attacks by Syria’s enemy Israel.
But in the short term at least the Russian initiative, which Syria announced it would accept on the eve of the president’s 48th birthday last week, was a gift for Assad.
It lifts the immediate threat of U.S. military action and secures his government an indispensable role over the coming months in assisting the destruction of chemical stockpiles.
“You’re looking at a re-legitimised regime here. Not just Assad but the whole entourage,” said Ayham Kamel, an analyst at the Eurasia consultancy group. “For the foreseeable future the government of Syria has become the key interlocutor for the international community”.
Since the early months of Syria’s 2011 uprising, which has grown into a civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed, the United States has called on Assad to step aside. U.S., European, and Middle East foes have all predicted his imminent overthrow at various stages of the conflict.
A U.S. official described Assad’s government in December 2011 as a “the equivalent of a dead man walking”, and the State Department insisted last week that the deal on chemical weapons did not change Washington’s position that he “has no legitimacy and can no longer be ruler of Syria”.
But however unpalatable the notion may be to President Barack Obama, only Assad and his officials can deliver the deal which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed out in Geneva on Saturday.
While Kerry said the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons must be complete by the middle of next year, the tortuous U.N. disarmament of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons in the 1990s showed how long the process can stretch out.
U.S. officials believe Syria has 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents including mustard gas and nerve gases such as sarin, and have identified 45 sites they say are associated with the chemical weapons program.
Even if those sites are under the control of Assad’s army, Syria’s civil war will complicate the task of destroying the materials safely, providing plenty of room for delay even if Damascus is totally sincere in its commitment.
“We are at a very preliminary stage. Assad’s partial cooperation was prompted by the desire to deter an attack,” Kamel said. “It’s not clear that (cooperation) will be there in the future”.