A shaky but promising deal on Syria

United Nations inspectors aren't saying who launched the chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 people in Syria in August, but it would be difficult for anyone — including President Bashar Assad's apologists in Moscow — to maintain the argument that it was anyone but the Assad regime. The report found that Sarin gas was used on a large scale and was delivered by surface-to-surface missiles, some of which were marked with what appear to be Cyrillic characters. That suggests a level of armament and technical ability far beyond what any rebel group in Syria is capable of. Meanwhile, another U.N. panel monitoring human rights violations in Syria said it is investigating 14 incidents of possible chemical weapons use in the country.

It is in that context that the United States, Russia and the rest of the international community were haggling out the terms of an agreement reached by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Saturday. Whether the offers of cooperation from Russia and Syria are sincere, whether the plan for securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons is workable, and whether this outcome is desirable in the first place all remain highly debatable. But there can now be no real doubt that international intervention was necessary, lest the gruesome and inhumane use of poison gas to kill civilians that took place on Aug. 21 turn into mere prelude for far greater brutality.

The key sticking point in the negotiations remains the possible use of force against the Assad regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration has adamantly opposed any language that would or could lead to United Nations authorization for military strikes. Realistically, the United States gives up little in ceding that point. Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, would have vetoed any resolution calling for the use of force. President Barack Obama remains no more constrained than he was in that regard before embarking on negotiations with Russia over a peaceful resolution to the situation a week ago. Indeed, he has said he will keep U.S. ships in the Eastern Mediterranean to preserve the ability to strike if necessary. Should the effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons arsenal fail, Mr. Obama will find himself in a stronger position to take military action.

Much of the anxiety over this deal stems from the sense — apparently shared from Mr. Obama on down — that President Putin is not to be trusted. He may well have jumped at what seemed like an off-hand remark by Mr. Kerry last week out of a desire to stall for time in Syria and to shore up the position of his ally, Mr. Assad, by keeping the American military on the sidelines of the civil war there. Oddly, though, the ranks of those upset by these latest developments include a fair number of those who objected to President Obama's effort to strike the Assad regime in the first place. People may not like the idea that America is the world's policeman, but they like even less the idea that Russia would step into that void. Mr. Putin rubbed some salt into that wound with an op-ed in the New York Times last week in which he portrayed himself as a humble man of peace and fealty to international law and Americans as egotistical warmongers.

The practical upshot of that, however, is that Mr. Putin now owns this peace process. The agreement Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov hashed out contains what would be an ambitious schedule for securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under the best of circumstances, much less amid a bloody civil war. If it is to work at all, Mr. Assad will have to quickly display the seriousness of his stated desire to get rid of his chemical stockpile, and the agreement includes an opportunity for him to do so within a week, when he is supposed to give an accounting of his inventory. Mr. Putin has held himself out to the world as the man who can deliver peace, and any failure by Mr. Assad to cooperate will diminish the prestige of his Russian benefactor.

That's no guarantee that this process will work. But the prospect of seeing Mr. Assad disarmed of chemical weapons is certainly greater than it was a week ago.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad