Syria Update: Russian Proposal Offers Crisis 'Exit', But Risks Remain

The Syrian crisis has taken a turn away from US military action, at least for now, 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 suggested that Syria can avoid American strikes by placing its chemical weapons in the hands of international monitors for the purposes of overseeing their destruction. We are awaiting Obama's televised address at 9:00 pm Eastern Standard Time for greater clarity on the US's position.

Implementation Could Be Tricky To Say The Least

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

Firstly, Syria will be extremely reluctant to abandon its chemical weapons, 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 killed Qadhafi. Even if 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 US 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. The rebels would not be keen to see weapons inspectors, because their very presence would represent a compromise between Washington and Damascus.

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 US military option on the table, in case Assad backtracks on any deal he reaches with the world's major powers.