When Secretary of State John Kerry off-handedly suggested that Syria could avoid strikes if it turned over its entire chemical weapons stockpile to the international community within a week, he immediately dismissed the idea. Not only was it not going to happen, he said, it wasn’t even possible.
Now, however, the idea has taken on life, and appears to be under serious consideration by Russia, Syria, and the White House. Skeptics of the possible deal, however, are busy expanding on Kerry’s original argument that it’s just not possible, or at least very difficult.
Those skeptics make a number of points about the logistical and political challenges involved in a chemical weapons turnover. (1) We don’t know where the chemical weapons stockpiles are. (2) Syrian president Bashar al Assad could—and likely would—lie to us about the extent of his chemical weapons arsenal. (3) Even if we did, those weapons would take years to completely destroy. (4) The deal is being used as a delaying tactic designed to stall or avoid strikes.
All of these are reasonable points. It’s probable that any deal to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons stores would take a long time, would be complicated by our lack of intelligence, and would involve lying or stalling on the part of the Assad regime.
But compared to a military strike, a chemical weapons handover deal is nevertheless a vastly preferable alternative.
Here’s what we get with a strike:
- We don’t destroy Assad’s entire chemical weapons arsenal (even if we targeted it, which we might not, we still don’t know where it’s all located, and some of it would be inaccessible via airstrike).
- The Assad regime keeps killing civilians.
- The Assad regime has a new incentive to use its chemical weapons on the populace.
- Syria’s allies in the region, including Iran, may retaliate, against the U.S. or against Israel.
- The United States is involved in a civil war between a dictatorship and Al Qeada-linked rebels that it may not be able to extricate itself from quickly, and that is likely to cause additional civilian deaths via collateral damage from our own strikes.
On the other hand, here’s what we get with a chemical weapons drawdown that is only partially successful:
- The Assad regime turns over at least some, and perhaps a lot, of its chemical weapons.
- The Assad regime agrees to additional monitoring to ensure that it does not use chemical weapons again.
- The regime faces external pressure from its ally, Russia, which is helping to broker the deal, not to use chemical weapons on civilians again.
- The United States doesn’t involve itself in an ugly civil conflict, lowers the risk of retaliation, and avoids directly causing civilian collateral damage entirely.
Syria’s brutal civil war is, sadly, likely to continue no matter what we do, and the Assad regime is virtually certain to continue killing its own people under any circumstance. But if we go to war with Syria, we get little, if anything, that we actually want, and we are highly likely to make the already awful situation worse. If we make a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, on the other hand, we get rid of—or at least can begin to closely monitor—some amount of the country’s chemical weapons, increase the pressure on the Assad regime to not use chemical weapons again, and avoid involvement in a new war of choice in the Middle East.
This is true even if Assad uses the negotiation process as a delaying tactic, and even if Assad lies about the extent or location of his chemical weapons stores. And on the off chance that Assad actually cooperates in something resembling good faith, then the outcome is even better. The fact that the deal might not work out perfectly, or that other players might try to game it, isn’t a reason to drop it in favor of strikes, because an attack on the Assad regime would almost certainly be even worse.