Chemical Weapons 'Deal' Offers Exit, But War Risks Remain

BMI View: The momentum for US airstrikes on Syria has waned for now, following Damascus' acceptance of a Russian proposal that Syria gives up its chemical weapons. However, the challenges of implementing the 'deal' are formidable, meaning that Washington will keep the military option on the table.

The Syrian crisis has taken a turn away from US military action, at least for the time being, with Damascus having agreed to a Russian proposal that it gives up its chemical weapons. The proposal has also won the support of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. US President Barack Obama himself has now postponed a decision on airstrikes against Syria, as he awaits the drafting of a UN resolution aimed at removing chemical weapons from Syria.

Implementation Could Be Tricky, To Say The Least

Chemical Weapons 'Deal' Offers Exit, But War Risks Remain

BMI View: The momentum for US airstrikes on Syria has waned for now, following Damascus' acceptance of a Russian proposal that Syria gives up its chemical weapons. However, the challenges of implementing the 'deal' are formidable, meaning that Washington will keep the military option on the table.

The Syrian crisis has taken a turn away from US military action, at least for the time being, with Damascus having agreed to a Russian proposal that it gives up its chemical weapons. The proposal has also won the support of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. US President Barack Obama himself has now postponed a decision on airstrikes against Syria, as he awaits the drafting of a UN resolution aimed at removing chemical weapons from Syria.

Implementation Could Be Tricky, To Say The Least

Overall, we are sceptical that the Russian initiative will prove successful.

Firstly, Syria will be extremely reluctant to abandon its chemical weapons, even under the threat of US military action, especially given the experience of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. Qadhafi ended his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes in 2004 after the Iraq War, and sought a rapprochement with the West, which was successful for some years. However, after Libya descended into civil war in 2011, the West quickly abandoned Qadhafi and NATO launched airstrikes on Libya in support of the anti-regime rebels, who ultimately swept to power and killed Qadhafi. Even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to give up chemical weapons, there would be virtually no chance of him being rehabilitated by the West, given that he is ultimately blamed for more than 100,000 deaths in Syria's civil war since 2011.

Secondly, even if Assad appears to cooperate by letting international inspectors into Syria to monitor and remove its chemical weapons, there would be huge logistical challenges. The former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein played a 'cat-and-mouse' game with UN weapons inspectors for several years, which prompted the Clinton administration to punish it in December 1998 by carrying out several days of airstrikes. The same thing could happen in Syria. Meanwhile, any UN inspection team in Syria would face greater challenges than in Iraq in the 1990s, given that large parts of Syria are controlled by the rebels. Furthermore, the rebels would not be keen to see weapons inspectors, because their very presence would represent a compromise between Washington and Damascus. The rebels favour US strikes on Syria to weaken Assad's military forces.

It is possible that a compromise between the US, Russia, and Syria could avert airstrikes in the near term, but we do not believe that a deal would put off military action indefinitely. Indeed, the Syrian rebels have every incentive to carry out a new offensive for the purposes of provoking the Assad regime into a brutal response, thus tarnishing the atmosphere ahead of a chemical weapons deal. Obama will meanwhile keep the military option on the table, in case Assad backtracks from any deal he reaches with the world's major powers.

Syrian War To Continue

Finally, we emphasise that even if chemical weapons are removed from the Syrian conflict, the war will go on with the use of conventional weapons. Given the US Congress' and public's reluctance to intervene even amid the US government's assertions that Syria used chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people, it is unclear what it would take to swing American and wider Western public opinion towards intervention. The August 21, 2013 chemical attack was the closest development we have seen in the Syrian conflict to the Srebrenica massacre of several thousand Muslims by Serb forces in Bosnia in 1995 - an event that triggered NATO airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs.

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