Syria Breakthrough: Russia and U.S. Announce Agreement

The stunning agreement could lead to the end of the Syrian crisis. Here's how it would work.

The diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva today is simply stunning. The “framework agreement for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons” reached by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers, in writing at least, just about everything President Barack Obama demanded when he threatened to attack the Assad regime earlier this month.

The agreement calls on Syria to declare in detail its entire chemical arsenal within weeks and destroy it – along with everything involved in making it – within five or six months. It outlines the inspection process, and if the Assad regime tries to stall or evade the agreement, Russia, far from protecting it, agrees to cooperate on U.N. resolutions that allow the use of force to compel compliance.

“Providing this effort is fully implemented,” Kerry declared, “it can end the threat that these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to their neighbors, [and] to the region.”

Indeed. One of the big winners is Israel. The Assad regime had built its undeclared chemical arsenal largely as a counterbalance to the Israelis’ undeclared nuclear arsenal. Now Assad not only is declaring publicly what he’s got, he’s supposed to trash it all. Syria was no match for Israel militarily in any case, but now, in the midst of a prolonged civil war, and giving up its weapons of mass destruction, it’s virtually defenseless in any conventional sense.

Another winner, paradoxically, is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – at least in the short term. Until his regime has finished complying with the terms laid down in the U.S.-Russian accord, Washington has no interest in seeing him removed from power.

For precisely that reason, the Syrian opposition, which is desperate for more and better U.S. support, is furious. “What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?” said Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of several loose-knit rebel forces, speaking in Istanbul. “We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.”

In fact, if Assad were allowed to continue the use of chemical weapons, neither the rebels nor any civilians in contested areas would have much hope. With sarin gas and mustard gas he could simply wipe them out or drive them out.

To be sure, Syria has not yet signed on to the U.S.-Russian accord, and Lavrov said the agreement does not yet have the effect of law. But Assad appears to have little room to maneuver. Moscow appears to have shared and compared intelligence it has about his arsenal. The agreement states flatly that the United States and Russia agree about the “amount and type of chemical weapons involved.” Since the Russians are on the ground as Assad’s main arms suppliers, and the United States has the benefit of Israeli as well as its own intelligence on these matters, if the data match up, they’re likely to be pretty accurate.

The Russians also appear to have dropped their contention, reiterated by President Vladimir Putin in his recent New York Times op-ed contribution, that there is “every reason to believe” the horrific gas attack on August 21 that killed 1,400 people on the outskirts of Damascus, setting this crisis in motion, was somehow carried out by “opposition forces.”

In fact, one of the most extraordinary parts of this extraordinary document is the paragraph in which the United States and the Russian Federation commit themselves to a U.N. Security Council Resolution imposing measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which means the authorization of military force if Syria fails to comply with the inspection and destruction program, “including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone” (my italics). Essentially it holds Assad responsible for the actions of his subordinates, and potentially even for chemical attacks launched by his enemies.

What do the Russians get from all these concessions? A great deal. The critical role of the Security Council, and Russia’s role within it as a permanent member, is acknowledged and repeatedly underscored. (That was actually the key demand Putin was making in his op-ed when he talked about being treated equally.) At the same time, by keeping Assad firmly in power, at least until his chemical arsenal is destroyed, Moscow reduces the chance the Al Qaeda-linked jihadists will get their hands on chemical weapons of mass destruction and share them through their international networks. Terrorists from Chechnya and Daghestan periodically carry out major attacks against Russian civilians in schools, subways and other crowded spaces. With chemical weapons, they could get more horrendous results than ever before.

(Ironically, as some readers will remember, the one time gas was used in a terrorist incident, it was actually Putin who ordered it to retake a Moscow theater seized by Chechen fighters in 2002. The gas killed the fighters -- and 130 of their hostages as well.)

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The big losers in all this are those who hoped the United States might embark on military action that somehow would bring the Syrian war to an end – and also those, like some factions in Iran, who might have wanted to suck America, “the Great Satan,” into another quagmire.

What the Obama administration contemplated – cruise missile strikes – would not have ended the fighting, certainly, and likely would have made it worse. What the administration has achieved with the threat of war rather than the act should be acknowledged for the limited but very real victory that it is.