Indecent proposal on Syria

The Russian ‘proposal’ to put Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control was a political masterstroke. I used inverted comas because its objective was not to deprive Assad of the use of chemical weapons at all. In fact quite the opposite – Putin has just about ensured that his Syrian allies will retain both the chemical weapons and their ability to use them. How so? Read on to find out.

Obama painted himself into a corner with his red line declaration last year. Meant to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, Obama’s bluff got called. Assad immediately started probing how far Obama was prepared to be pushed by launching small-scale nerve gas attacks. With no US response he upped the ante in August and wiped out hundreds of civilians using sarin. At the risk of losing credibility Obama could no longer afford to ignore this escalation and called for a military response. A fragile international coalition wanting a piece of the action soon disintegrated when the UK Parliament voted against using force in Syria. With the UN Security Council unlikely to offer any support Obama was left stranded and scrambling for an out.

This is when Putin, using cricket terminology, bowled an unplayable delivery. His proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control on the face of it looks sensible. It will attract support of the countries which want to appear to be doing something but have no appetite for risk. Obama cannot ignore this conciliatory measure so his push for a military action has been thwarted. The ‘proposal’ also offers Obama a plausible excuse to do nothing without looking clueless – an opportunity no seasoned politician will pass up. Assad loves the ‘proposal’ because it means his butt will not get kicked for a while. So where is the catch, you may ask?

Putin’s ‘proposal’ is so absurd I am struggling to find an angle to meaningfully discuss it. First to say it will not even get off the ground because Russia, US and Europe all have differing views on what it should include. In particular, what sanctions are to be instituted should Syria fail to play ball:

That Syria has already accepted it is of no relevance because the ‘proposal’ is not even there to be accepted – no one can agree on what exactly is being proposed. Putin will veto any threat of military action in case of Assad’s non-compliance and the US will not accept a meaningless declaration with no threats attached. This is so elementary I gaze with disbelief at the media wetting themselves in excitement.

But, for the sake of argument, let us assume an agreement has been reached to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons to the UN. How would we go about doing it? Syria is a country torn by a civil war. Various militant groups roam the countryside, killing state loyalists, establishing sharia courts etc. Even the area controlled by Assad is far from stable. It is well known that the chemical weapons are scattered across the country and held at military compounds. The chances of injecting an effective UN force to take control of the weapons in this environment are zero. To start with if this force is unarmed it will be bullied by both Assad and the rebels and will quickly end up as hostages. They will then be held to blackmail the West (if caught by Assad) or read a passage from Quran and beheaded (should they be apprehended by the rebels). If, on the other hand, the UN insist on arming the inspectors it will amount to landing a military force in Syria. This is not what the West wants and also would be unacceptable to Assad.

But let us make a further improbable assumption that a UN contingent has landed in Syria and extracted some chemical weapons. The process would take months and the West would have absolutely no idea how much more Assad had hidden from them.

So, as we can see, the real objective of Putin’s ‘proposal’ is not to remove the chemical weapons from Assad’s control but to keep them there. The ‘proposal’ has made the military strike by the US, which could ultimately dislodge the Syrian regime, politically untenable. Knowing that he has another lease of life, Assad is now free to carry on with the business of civil war, using chemical weapons if he so chooses.

This is indecent, indeed.


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