President Obama will address the nation tonight, but his speech will have to be rewritten after yesterday’s dramatic diplomatic development. The Syrian regime, at Russia’s urging, has agreed to permit international supervision of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in order to avoid U.S. military action.
Bashar Assad’s announcement came after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave an unplanned answer to a reporter’s question about how Assad could avoid American strikes. He dismissively said that Assad could entirely dismantle his chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. Shockingly, Russia publicly called on Assad to do just that and the Syrian dictator agreed.
The Obama Administration deserves some credit because the credible threat of military action spooked Assad and his allies. The Senate’s vote on authorization was to begin Wednesday. However, Clarion Project has been told by an informed source that Russia persuaded Assad by offering massive military and financial assistance that may give him an edge in the civil war.
The lesson learned by Assad and Russia is that the U.S. reacts very negatively to the killing of civilians through chemical warfare—but when much larger numbers are killed with conventional weapons, the West looks the other way.
By dismantling some or even all of his WMDs in return for massive Russian assistance, Assad may believe that he’ll actually come out of his confrontation with the U.S. stronger than before. After all, WMD stockpiles can be dismantled but expertise and production facilities preserved, they can be quickly rebuilt.
The deal satisfies everyone involved except for the secular Syrian rebels who have begged the West for assistance since the rebellion began:
- Assad is happy because he avoids U.S. action that could easily turn into a more sustained campaign against his regime. In addition, he may even be given Russian assistance that causes severe rebel defeats.
- The Obama Administration can boast that its military threat successfully pressured Assad and can retreat from an extremely unpopular political conflict. Also, even a partial disarmament by Assad would do more to diminish his WMD threat than a “unbelievably small” military action by the U.S. would have, to use Kerry’s words.
- Iran, Russia and Hezbollah are happy that their ally is avoiding U.S. military action.
The ones who aren’t happy are the Muslim Brotherhood (which endorsed a U.S. strike) and the non-Islamist Syrian rebels—but there is still time to make this tentative agreement advantageous to the rebels. The key is making sure that rebels’ strengthening due to Western support outpaces Assad’s strengthening due to Russian support.
If this time is used to build up the secularists’ capabilities so they can threaten both Assad and the Islamists, then the U.S. will have the best of both worlds. On the contrary, if Assad gains a decisive advantage over the rebels now, then both Iran and Al-Qaeda win.
Why? Because Iran’s ally is preserved and Al-Qaeda will still be able to use Syria to create a new generation of jihadists, making the country the modern-day equivalent of Afghanistan in the 1980s. An Assad victory is not necessarily a defeat for Al-Qaeda if viewed in this context.
Assad’s possible voluntary disarmament of his WMD should be pursued—but all dealings with Assad must be done without taking our eyes off the wider Islamist threat.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.