By William Beecher
Early in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, President Barack Obama insisted that al-Assad must go. But by accepting Vladimir Putin’s audacious proposal that Assad surrender his stocks of chemical weapons, and Assad’s even more surprising immediate assent, Obama has in effect enabled the Syrian dictator’s hold on power for years to come.
Some skeptics have warned that neither Putin nor Assad can be trusted and that the United States must hold out the threat of military retaliation if the deal is evaded. But that misses the point: It is in Assad’s interest to go along, at least partially, because in so doing he will in all likelihood remain in power while his armed forces continue to pound the insurgents.
In a word, Putin and Assad suckered Obama into assuring the latter’s retention of power while the war rages and the insurgents and their civilian supporters continue to be bloodied.
Obama seems to be playing a simple-minded game of checkers, while Putin is playing a more complex game of chess. Guess who’s outclassed?
Recall that until Putin raised the prospect of eliminating Syria’s humongous stores of poison gas weapons—estimated at 1,000 metric tons—Assad insisted that he had none. Then, suddenly, he not only admitted it, but also agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, vowing not to manufacture, store or use poison gas.
Why the abrupt about face? Was he muscled by Moscow? Or did he realize that it would take years for U.N. inspectors, during a raging war, to attempt to locate, tag, and destroy or remove such weapons?
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the world body charged with the responsibility for enforcing the chemical arms ban. It has 125 inspectors on its payroll at present. Who would protect them in a raging war zone while they attempt to do their work? Would U.N. troops be assigned that role?
The world body is supposed to check out only those sites identified by the host government. Can one not imagine that Assad might conceivably withold certain weapons with the Israeli threat in mind? That’s why he built up his stocks to begin with.
And more important in terms of his staying power, even for those stocks he identifies, it would probably take years and billions of dollars to destroy the VX, Sarin and mustard gas weapons in place and remove the rest for destruction elsewhere.
Nine years after Libya’s Muammar el-Qadaffi agreed to the destruction of 13 tons of mustard gas weapons, the job is not yet complete. (And it turned out he hid some chemical weapons from inspectors.) Accomplishing this task in Syria would be vastly more challenging, with 30 times more chemical weapons.
Since 1999, under terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Japan is required to dispose of chemical weapons abandoned in China at the end of the Second World War. Fourteen years later that job is not nearly complete and is expected to cost about $9 billion. And of course, that’s not in a war zone.
Meanwhile, not only would Assad’s forces continue their assaults, but al-Qaeda-linked jihadists would continue to build up their areas of control in northern Syria, near the Turkish border.
Will Obama finally provide combat elements identified as moderate secularists with the kinds of weapons in sufficient numbers to more than hold their own, perhaps even to turn the tide? We’re talking about such things as shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank rockets. Not just field food rations and bandages. There hasn’t been a sign of such urgently needed combat supplies from the U.S. thus far.
Assad appears to be in robust health. But, of course, he could always suffer a heart attack, or his inner circle could turn on him, or a car bomb could snuff him out.
But otherwise, it appears that Obama has co-signed his life insurance.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He also is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.
[Photo courtesy of Bertil Videt]