Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s sudden willingness to put its chemical weapons under international — i.e. Russian — supervision might allow the regime to avoid a US attack while at the same time preserving its advantage in Syria’s civil war. Despite tough rhetoric from the United States, if an agreement can be reached on the modalities of safeguarding the chemical weapons, the US can avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict while still, more or less, saving face.
President Barack Obama’s delineation of the “red line” that would trigger intervention if crossed trapped the US into acting in Syria. Not to do so would have been a serious blow to the US’ pre-eminent standing in global affairs.
But to strike without UN Security Council approval would have drawn international opprobrium and likely have escalated involvement by Russia and Iran. The logic of intervention, too, would be to step up from “degrading” the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons and probably damaging its air power to damaging the regime’s wider capacity, allowing greater prospects for regime change.
At this stage, the US is not backing down on its internal discussions about attacking Assad’s regime. But its rhetoric should now be read primarily as keeping up pressure on Russia to finally act to help moderate the conflict. Having Russia involved in Syria would help prevent the US from being drawn into a no-win situation. Should the US intervene, it will create four problems that do not currently exist.
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The first problem is that any hope for detente with Russia would collapse, raise the spectre of opposition on a range of other global issues the US is trying to manage, including China’s strategic manoeuvring, a nuclear armed Iran, and a mad and bad North Korea. It would also damage the opportunity to work with Russia on the mutual concern with the spread of international jihadist Islamism.
The second problem is that any US intervention in Syria would turn a number of its Middle Eastern friends into critics, based not on their strategic alliances but on the “great unbeliever” again imposing its will on Islamic land. One should not underestimate the offence to Muslims caused by non-Islamic military involvement in Islamic countries.
The third problem is that if the Assad regime were to fall, Syria’s patchwork of over a dozen ethnic groups would descend into an ethnic cleansing bloodbath. The conflict would also almost certainly spill over into Lebanon and further destabilise Iraq and perhaps Jordan and would pose a greater threat to Israel.
The fourth problem is that while few like the Assad regime, everyone but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are much more concerned about the likely jihadist Islamist alternative. Should Assad be toppled, the Syrian Islamic Front — a coalition of radical Salafi jihadist organisations linked to al-Qaeda — would very likely defeat the alternative anti-Assad Free Syrian Army.
This would create a combative Islamist state in the heart of the Middle East. The US and Russia would be equally aghast at this eventually.
At least with Russia now offering to “safeguard” Syria’s chemical weapons -0 if with conditions – the possibility they will fall into the hands of a combative Islamist state would be removed. And the US may be able to avoid again setting itself up as Islam’s “great Satan”.
Assuming it can obtain sufficient guarantees, the US will likely accept Russia’s offer. More than punish Assad, the US wants to preserve its credibility while extricating itself from a situation it has never wanted to be in and that, on balance, it knows will only get worse.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University