Russia’s Dangerously Appealing Syria Proposal

If Syria follows through on its apparent agreement to submit its chemical weapons to international control and then destroy them, it will be a stroke of luck akin to genius for one of the more inept episodes of U.S. foreign policy.

There is good reason to be skeptical of Syria’s declaration, which follows a Russian proposal, which was born of an American gaffe -- namely, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s “rhetorical” response, as his spokeswoman put it, to a reporter’s question about what Syria could do to avert a U.S. strike. Just this week, President Bashar al-Assad was still playing coy about whether Syria even had chemical weapons. Assad’s bombing of rebel positions in Damascus today, even as his foreign minister pledged allegiance to the chemical weapons treaty, hardly inspires confidence in his intentions.

President Barack Obama will need to keep his focus on the imperative of enforcing the international norm on chemical weapons when he addresses the nation tonight. He should embrace Syria’s offer -- but with a deadline attached. He cannot allow the U.S. to be played for time, either by Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Obama can also use the plan to rally Congress, which should endorse a United Nations effort and set a time limit that permits U.S. airstrikes should Assad fail to deliver. (Several senators, including inveterate hawk and Obama foe John McCain, appear to favor this tack as well.) Assad will give up his arsenal only if he believes that he will be bombed if he doesn’t. In his speech, Obama needs to spell out for Congress the authorization that he is seeking, with a deadline for legislative action.

France is acting quickly to keep this process honest. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said it will circulate a draft resolution setting out the Russian proposal at the UN Security Council today. Vitally, this would be a Chapter 7 resolution, authorizing the use of force against Assad if he fails to comply. Predictably, Putin has demanded that the U.S. and France first renounce the threat of force, a condition that would doom any attempt to hold Assad to his word.

Time is of the essence. The Russian proposal is worth pursuing because, if successful, it would be more effective than airstrikes in preventing the further use of chemical weapons. Limited airstrikes -- which for reasons of safety would not target the chemical weapons stocks themselves -- couldn’t remove them from Assad’s control or destroy them. They could only deter further use. Moreover, successful cooperation in the Security Council might just open doors to a wider political settlement.

What should a UN agreement call for? Assad should have to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention within a week; deliver a declaration of chemical weapons stocks within 30 days, the period after treaty adoption before verification kicks in; and admit inspectors as soon as he is asked. So the 45-day window to airstrikes proposed by Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota seems about right.

Guarding or removing chemical weapons stocks during a civil war would be uncharted territory for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which must verify compliance with the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Yet their inspectors succeeded in getting to the Damascus suburb of Ghouta after the apparent chemical weapons attack there. If Assad can be forced to cooperate, they might succeed again.

There is no denying the appeal of a diplomatic agreement: Obama would avoid an unpopular U.S. military adventure in Syria; Russia would affirm its influence in the Middle East; Assad would avoid an attack on his military; and the Syrian opposition would see its enemy deprived of its most virulent weapons.

Clarity has not been a hallmark of Obama’s handling of the crisis in Syria. In part, this is because the situation itself is fluid and often confusing. Yet the administration also has itself to blame. Kerry, for example, has decried Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a moral obscenity” that “should shock the conscience of the world” -- and justified the administration’s response as an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”

Obama cannot afford to let Kerry’s latest unscripted moment become yet another detour in a road whose destination -- validation of the world’s ban on chemical weapons and an end to the conflict in Syria -- remains frustratingly distant. In his speech tonight he would do well to explain, to Congress and the American people, how the threat of military force strengthens diplomacy.


To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.