The U.S.-Russia agreement to compel Syria to account for and destroy its chemical weapons completes what foreign policy insiders say is a dangerous about-face by the Obama administration — flipping from demanding Syrian President Bashar Assad’s resignation to now legitimizing him as the linchpin player in a tenuous deal.
Major questions remain about the ambitious timeline set out in the deal reached in Geneva on Saturday. While some believe the U.S. threat to bomb Syria is still imminent if Mr. Assad fails to comply, many analysts believe the deal could only have been reached if the administration agreed to back off its threats and go to the United Nations Security Council to resolve future issues.
“America has come around to legitimizing Assad now, because the position they used to maintain, which was that Assad has to go but we want political negotiations, was a nonstarter,” says Joshua Landis, a leading Syria analyst who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“How do you negotiate with somebody when you’re also saying to them, ‘We want your head?’” Mr. Landis said.
The administration’s shift
Despite the recent threats of a U.S. strike, Mr. Landis contends the Obama administration’s long-term view on Mr. Assad’s future has actually been shifting — albeit quietly — for the past several months.
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He pointed to a July 18 White House briefing in which administration spokesman Jay Carney said that Mr. Assad “will never rule all of Syria again.” The statement, Mr. Landis said, exposed how open the administration has come to the “unstated goal” of bringing about an eventual “partition of Syria in which the rebels get the north of the country and Assad gets control of as much as he can hang on to.”
While this weekend’s deal may pave the way for such a political solution to Syria’s violent war, more conservative analysts have raised concerns that partitioning is a risky concession.
“Let’s put State Department spin aside: Assad’s rhetoric and behavior alone now shows that he believes he is in the driver’s seat,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar focused on Middle East issues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Recent days saw the Syrian president acknowledge the existence of his chemical weapons program for the first time and agree to sign the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
However, heading into the weekend, Mr. Assad was also cited by several Western news organizations as having warned that he would not give up his weapons unless the United States dropped its threats to conduct a military strike on Syria and agreed to stop supporting forces fighting for his ouster.
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According to Mr. Rubin, a central danger going forward involves the possibility that Mr. Assad and his Russian supporters are engaged in a diplomatic gambit to outmaneuver the United States.
“Americans see diplomacy as a means of conflict resolution, but Russia often uses diplomacy as part of an asymmetric warfare strategy. The deal to which Kerry agreed won’t resolve Syria’s chemical arsenal; rather, it will let it disburse them and restock its arsenal,” he said, speaking of Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Whether such a prediction is true is likely to depend on the how successful the Obama administration is at working with the Russians to achieve the timeline and goals hammered out by Mr. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Syria has one week
According to a copy circulated by the State Department, Syria is expected to “submit, within a week, 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.”
The pursuit of such information so quickly may be ambitious, particularly since prior to recent days, Mr. Assad had refused to admit to the international community that his government was even in possession of such weapons.
While there was suspicion about the Russian motivations behind the deal, some observers said Moscow would not have agreed to such parameters without confidence that Mr. Assad will comply.
“I can’t believe that the Russians are doing this unless Assad is at least nodding his head,” said Mr. Landis. “And that’s what America is counting on, that Russia is going to want to look like a powerful player here and that means that they can get their allies to deliver.”
The agreement, meanwhile, calls for the complete “removal and destruction” of Syria’s chemical weapons by the “first half of 2014.”
It remains to be seen how international weapons inspectors will achieve the objective, since it will require them to expediently navigate the very volatile landscape of a civil war that has been raging inside Syria over the past two years.
In addition to the alleged use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to Mr. Assad last month, the conflict has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.