Is U.S.-Russia Deal on Syria 'Obscene'?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Brookings' Shadi Hamid is one of the smartest Middle East analysts alive and I find myself convinced by pretty much everything he says. So it's no surprise that he has given probably the clearest exposition of the sense, shared by many critics of the U.S.-Russian deal on Syria's chemical weapons, that the pact represents an "obscene" trade: a license for President Bashar al-Assad to continue slaughtering his people, as long as he gives up chemical weapons that are marginal to his war effort.

I understand the feeling and it is compelling, not least because you have to suspect (as Syria's rebels and their allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia certainly do), that any deal Assad would accept is good for him and bad for them. They also suspect, correctly, that President Obama is signing up just to get out of missile strikes he never wanted to launch, rather than to end the war.

Let's go through the argument, though. The agreement, says Hamid, changes nothing about the war and slaughter. This sounds true, but isn't. It omits that if the U.S. figure of 1,400 dead in the chemical weapons attack at Ghouta on Aug. 21 is correct, then this was by a multiple of at least four the most deadly single attack of the war. Chemical weapons can kill more people than mortar shells, it's just that they have been used very rarely. Their capacity explains why chemical weapons have been recognized as different from conventional ones since at least 1925, and accounts for the "mass" in the term "weapons of mass destruction." Assad has 1,000 tons of this stuff.

Still, I accept the larger point. To the best of our knowledge, more than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war to date. Chemical weapons are a subset of the problem, they aren't the main issue and the failure to do something about the slaughter earlier is a stain on us all.

Hamid argues that having a deal in place might make it harder for the U.S. administration to call for military intervention later, after some future massacre with bullets and bombs. Assad, says Hamid, "is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than 'punished' as originally planned. He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving up very little in return." Assad doesn't need chemical weapons to conduct his war, says Hamid. "Now he can get away with nearly anything."

This is a powerful statement, but problematic on two counts. First, the airstrikes were always meant to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons, not to punish him for Ghouta. (Leave aside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's verbal indiscipline: At various times he said the strikes would be for just about anything imaginable.) Punishment doesn't provide a basis for the use of force under international law. Self-defense or the protection of civilians, yes, but not punishment -- that's for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This is important, because although airstrikes might have served to punish Assad, a deal to eliminate his chemical weapons is a better way of ensuring he never uses them again. Hamid is getting mad at a screwdriver for being a lousy hammer.

Secondly, Hamid is conflating what is with what should have been. Before Assad used chemical weapons, there was no threat of U.S. military intervention. Obama wasn't even willing to give the rebels small arms, let alone intervene militarily, and there was no drumbeat to war except in the imaginings of U.S. Senator John McCain. So the concern that the chemical weapons deal will kill off future military intervention on humanitarian grounds is a straw man. You may not like Obama's policy of staying out of Syria, it isn't a proud or heroic one, but it has been consistent -- with the exception of his red line on chemical weapons. The only threat to Assad that the current deal removes is the planned 48 hours or so of cruise missile strikes directed at halting his chemical weapons use.

There's no need to rehearse here all the arguments about the pros and cons of such limited strikes, but suffice it to say many people believe Assad might emerge stronger by surviving them, much as Hezbollah did after Israel's Lebanon offensive in 2006. I think Assad would be somewhat weakened, which is why (a) he is listening to the Russians; (b) the rebels are disappointed; and (c) the Russians are taking political risks to block airstrikes -- they would be unable to respond and exposed as impotent to protect a client from the U.S., and President Vladimir Putin doesn't want that. But we're all speculating.

More certain is that the odds of limited U.S. missile strikes ending the slaughter in Syria or toppling Assad are slim-to-zero. In 1999, 78 days of bombing Serbia didn't remove Slobodan Milosevic, another monster. It took that long to persuade him to pull troops out of Kosovo.

"What should have been about helping move Syria toward a resolution of its terrible, tragic conflict has now been turned into a cynical cat-and-mouse game over chemical weapons," says Hamid. I agree -- except for the "turning" part, because the response to Ghouta was never about ending the war. The anger that Hamid and others feel over the U.S.-Russian deal is a displaced fury over the failure of the international community to do zip to end this conflict. That failure is set to continue, with or without airstrikes. If there is any glimmer of hope it is that the chemical weapons talks can be leveraged into a settlement process. On that possibility, I'm as skeptical as Hamid.

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