In the coming days, the Syrian government is supposed to provide an accounting to the United Nations of its chemical weapons program. The declaration expected from Syria is spelled out in a four-page framework agreement forged Saturday by the United States and Russia in Geneva. That document may present President Obama with a way to solve the most pressing national security crisis of his second term without taking military action that most American citizens and members of Congress oppose. Will it work? Here are four things you need to know about the proposed deal.
1) The plan is very ambitious. The first step of the U.S.-Russian framework agreement requires President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to submit to the United Nations “a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.” Press reports say Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed in private talks in Geneva last week that Syria possessed about 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents, including nerve gas and blistering agents. But the devil is in the details. After the first submission from Syria, the U.S.-Russia plan says an initial round of inspections is supposed to be complete by the end of November, and Syria’s chemical stocks should be destroyed by the middle of 2014. To get a sense of how ambitious that stipulation is, consider what the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, told a conference for intelligence community contractors in Washington on Thursday: “Today I asked a few of our folks from our own chemical system, ‘How long did it take for us to kind of get rid of everything?’... It took us about seven years, so it’s going to take a while.”
2) The pro-Western rebels are not happy. Two weeks ago it appeared that Obama was finally willing to enter the Syria conflict against Assad. The leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the opposition groups fighting Assad that are not affiliated with al Qaeda, greeted the prospect of American airstrikes against Syrian military targets with praise. Mohammed al-Aboud, commander of the eastern front for the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, told The Daily Beast on Sunday: “In my area on the eastern front—this is where most of the oil and gas is—this has been targeted by the extremist forces. There is increased pressure by the extremist forces. This makes the fight much harder because the perception is our forces will not be getting support from the United States.” For now, the Free Syrian Army will continue to rely on other patrons in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, where Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, has worked to provide Assad’s more moderate opponents with weapons and other kinds of support.
3) For now, Obama avoids political humiliation. Obama acknowledged last week in interviews with major U.S. television networks that he may not have had the votes for even a modest authorization of force against Syria. So on Tuesday, the president asked Congress to delay the vote. The delay almost certainly spared him a defeat in the House of Representatives, where even close allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), such as Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) announced their opposition to a military strike. One Democratic member of Congress told The Daily Beast over the weekend of party leaders complaining bitterly to senior White House staff that the proposed resolution would put them in an impossible position with their constituencies. One Republican staff member told The Daily Beast on Sunday that he saw the main victory of the diplomatic initiative as sparing “the Congress of having to cast a vote.” This staff member added: “The actual rejection would have been a tsunami throughout our foreign policy. It did not happen and that is a plus.”
4) Any deal will be a defeat for America’s political strategy. For now Obama has claimed a tentative victory. Over the weekend, the president said in his weekly address that the credible threat of force spurred Assad to take steps to acknowledge and possibly disarm his chemical arsenal. “A dictator must not be allowed to gas children in their beds with impunity,” Obama said. But even if Assad loses all his chemical weapons and cooperates with the ambitious schedule laid out in the U.S.-Russia framework, he will likely remain in power. It also is unclear whether the limited support the U.S. government has provided to the Free Syrian Army would continue if Assad made progress on his chemical weapons. In that sense, while Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is punished with a disarmament process, he would still be able to say he survived despite crossing what Obama has said is one of the world’s gravest red lines.