Efficient on Chemicals, Damascus Drags Feet on Peace

10/31/2013 11:22 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki comes to the White House on November 1 to warn President Obama that Syria's bitter civil war is not just "a humanitarian tragedy" but "an immediate threat to the security of our own country." The threat, in the Iraqi leader's view, lies in Al Qaeda's sectarian violence, not the brutality of Syrian security forces.

Of course Maliki's aim in emphasizing the extremist threat is to pry loose American military aid, though he assuredly does not want a return of American troops. (Noting that "Iraq today is no longer a protectorate," he dismisses out of hand Senate hawks' continuing lament that withdrawing U.S. troops from the country made for "defeat.") Yet Maliki also makes the administration squirm by observing bluntly, "After some initial differences, American and Iraqi policies toward Syria are converging." And it's not Baghdad's policy that has changed.

Certainly there are some haunting parallels between Iraqis' experience in the last decade and Syria's convulsions today. The United Nations estimates that 120,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the past two years. A newly published U.S.-Iraqi study puts Iraqi war deaths at 405,000 over the eight years of the U.S. military presence.

U.N. officials in 2007 estimated 2.2 million Iraqis had fled their country, with another 2 million internally displaced. Today, they calculate that 2.1 million Syrians have sought refuge across borders, with a staggering 4.7 million more having been internally displaced.

The same terror-reliant Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ties the two countries together in its very name. In one, it challenges a government it sees as heretically Shiite; in the other, it attacks both a secular government and religiously moderate rebels.

And, of course, U.N. weapons inspectors had overseen the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and are doing the same with Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles today. The U.N.'s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons even declared at October's end that Syria's chemical weapons capacities have been destroyed ahead of the schedule demanded by the United Nations Security Council.

The alacrity with which the Syrian government is meeting the Security Council's timetable for elimination of its macabre arsenal--one it had long maintained as an essential deterrent against Israeli nuclear attack--suggests how much Damascus fears wide-ranging American air strikes that could obliterate its military edge over insurgents. Syria can put off to another day theoretical worries about deterring an Israeli nuclear attack. If poison gas be the one "red line" that could trigger U.S. intervention, it's rational for president Bashar al-Assad to rely just on conventional forces to ride out the regime's life-or-death crisis.

In the through-the-looking-glass politics of the Middle East, this same calculation has left the Saudis furious about Syria's surrender of chemical weapons and President Obama's abandonment of a military strike.

Having bizarrely spurned the seat on the Security Council that Saudi diplomats had worked for years to secure, and even more bizarrely put out that the reason was disgust with Obama over Syria, the Riyadh regime is now circulating a proposed General Assembly resolution to condemn Assad's for war crimes and gross violations of human rights.

The draft text notably calls on that same Security Council to "ensure accountability in Syria and stresses the important role that international criminal justice could play in this regard." This is especially remarkable as the Saudis have never been shown passion for the International Criminal Court. Unsurprisingly, involving the court in Syria has been anathema to the Russians, and even the American reaction is lukewarm, as Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth confirms.

The Saudi resolution includes a ritual call to convene the long-delayed Geneva conference on ending the war, although the Russians and others see the Saudis as actively undermining the proposed peace talks. For its part, the Obama administration has come round to seeing a compromise political settlement as a top priority -- the "convergence" that Maliki talks about.

Backers of the rebels, however, detecting "mixed messages" from Washington, balk at negotiations. Acutely conscious of their losses on the battlefield, insurgents who have sacrificed so much to resist Assad's ruthless regime are terrified their sacrifices may have been in vain, and want Assad's ouster guaranteed in advance of negotiations.

Assad feels no urgency to accede to such a demand. He told U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi this week that, instead, "any political solution is linked to putting an end to support funneled to terrorist groups" - -regime parlance for the Syrian resistance. He offered no hint of uncertainty about continuing past his current term.

For Secretary of State John Kerry, "the only alternative to a negotiated settlement is continued, if not increased, killing." Left unsaid is the gnawing awareness that, if the insurgents' bargaining leverage is weaker now than it was a year ago, there is scant reason to be confident it will grow stronger in 2014.

Yet even if they have lost the momentum they had in early 2012, the rebels have very valuable leverage going into a ceasefire: they control large swaths of Syrian territory. None of the toothless democratic opposition groups in Damascus with whom Assad would prefer to deal brings that chip to the table.

Throughout the crisis, a principal concern of Washington has been the breakdown of the Syrian state, evidenced anew by the appalling reappearance of polio. The Obama administration is all too mindful of the chaos produced by U.S. "success" in deposing Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and in obliterating the Ba'athist state in Iraq.

Perhaps Maliki will be willing to journey to Damascus and help remove the scales from his Syrian counterpart's eyes. Factional obduracy and the stalling of negotiations with preconditions constitute a formula for disaster. Perhaps Assad can take it from an Iraqi.