09/09/2013 07:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Syrian Solution on the Horizon?

News broke today on Syria, but it's not exactly the news everyone was expecting. The political world was really expecting today to be a day of dueling interviews, beginning with Charlie Rose's "scoop" interview with the leader of Syria, Bashir al-Assad. Later in the day, President Barack Obama would blanket the airwaves by granting six network evening news interviews. This was to be followed up tomorrow night with a primetime presidential address from the Oval Office. That's what everyone was expecting the news to all be about, at any rate.

Instead of a competition in the arena of press relations, however, a possible solution to the Syrian crisis appeared (almost mirage-like) on the horizon. Details are scant as of this writing, but Syria seems to be looking favorably toward a Russian proposal that they turn over all of their chemical weapons stores to international monitors who would then destroy them -- putting all chemical weapons completely out of reach of both sides in the conflict forevermore.

This could turn out to be a brilliant diplomatic success which would answer the core problem of the Syrian chemical weapons. It could also turn out to be unworkable, a fiasco, or some other species of failure. To even say that it is "too early to tell" is a vast overstatement at this point, as the details of the proposal haven't even been made public yet -- much less how the United States will react, what this means for Obama's attack votes in Congress (the soonest of which may take place as early as Wednesday in the Senate), and how the United Nations Security Council will react. That's all just in the realm of politics and diplomacy -- there are other problematic questions as well on the organization, implementation, and mechanics of how the Syrian chemical weapons will be handled. It's too early to tell (again, as of this writing) even what the actual proposal is, as no real details have been confirmed by anyone other than very brief statements.

Even after such a list of caveats, the possibility of a successful end to the current crisis is indeed tantalizing -- which is what makes the proposal such big news in the first place. Because, assuming for the point of discussion that such a proposal can be made to work (an enormous assumption that may prove very quickly to be groundless, I will fully admit), it does seem to be a rather elegant way out of the wilderness for just about all of the interested parties in the current crisis. The "current crisis" means the question of chemical weapons, I should point out (in yet another caveat), because even if this plan is adopted and does work perfectly, it is not going to end the civil war in Syria. So it's not like this is any sort of peace accord or anything.

But it would bring benefits to just about all of the involved parties. The Syrian rebels wouldn't see their military position change much, because just removing chemical weapons from the Syrian government's arsenal doesn't change the fact that Assad would still have lots of other weapon types, all of which are effective and deadly on their own. It won't "move the battle lines" at all on the Syrian map, even if some sort of cease fire happens while the international monitors move in to secure the chemical weapons. So, for the rebels, it wouldn't change their situation much at all -- except for knowing that they wouldn't have to worry about being killed by nerve gas any more. Which -- in and of itself -- is important; but it wouldn't change the rebels' overall military situation much.

Such an agreement would benefit Assad and the Syrian government, on a number of levels. If it could avert an American airstrike, then that's a big benefit to begin with. It would also be a public relations victory for Assad on the world stage. Assad is now fully aware that the actual use of such weapons might just carry such a high price for him in the future that the weapons themselves become tactically worthless in his military calculus. So trading them away to gain a diplomatic victory might be very appealing to Assad. By giving up his chemical weapons, Assad would gain more than he would lose. For this to be true, though, the threat of American retaliation for their use would have to be very real (which, depending on what Congress does, might not actually be the case).

Syria is no friend of America, but they do have a longstanding relationship with Russia. If Russia took the lead on sending in the personnel to secure the weapons sites and begin their destruction, it would avoid the prospect of less-friendly and less-trusted foreign troops (read: Americans) being the ones to take control of the weapons. This would help Assad at home and in the wider region, because having American troops on Middle Eastern soil is always problematic for any country's leaders in this part of the world. Russia would benefit by boosting its own image in the world community (stepping up to the plate to defuse a volatile situation), and by using its weight to perhaps get the United Nations to approve such a mission. Putin would score a diplomatic victory which could help him both internationally and domestically, appearing as a world-class statesman. This would all happen a short time before the world's attention will turn to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In America, the proposal could preclude the enormous fight in Congress over Syrian airstrikes, and could allow President Obama to claim his own diplomatic victory. While the events of today were orchestrated to appear spontaneous, it is pretty hard to believe that everyone just came up with the idea today -- that a few offhand remarks by John Kerry were immediately acted upon by the Russians and accepted in principle by the Syrians within a matter of hours. Again, this is largely just speculation, since the public doesn't yet know the real story on how this proposal was conceived. A more believable scenario (to me, at least) is that the proposal itself has been in the making for a while now -- which would put Obama's decision to delay the strikes by consulting Congress in an entirely different light. A lot of diplomacy -- involving both successes and failures -- happens outside the public eye, and this could easily be true in this instance as well. If the diplomacy started over a week ago and continued during the G-20 meeting in Russia last week, then it makes a lot of sense that Obama would have chosen to pay the political price for delaying immediate airstrikes, in order to gain a much more favorable outcome -- diplomatically, politically, and militarily.

The diplomatic victory for Obama could play out with a U.N. Security Council resolution (something which wouldn't have been possible for airstrikes) approving the plan. Politically, Congress would likely delay final votes on the authorization for the airstrikes, avoiding a very tough vote for Democrats and Republicans alike. This would remove the risk that Obama took by asking Congress in the first place -- the risk that they'd turn him down. Politically, Obama could claim that what got Assad to the table in the first place was the very threat of American airstrikes -- and that that threat was so tangible and fearful that it produced an even better outcome than any airstrike could ever have hoped to achieve.

Militarily, this would be a dramatically better outcome than perhaps destroying Assad's air capabilities and crippling a limited amount of his other war machinery. Even those most supportive of Obama's airstrike plan would admit, when asked, that it would be impossible to actually target the chemical weapons themselves within Syria (even though we think we know where most of them are stored), because shooting a single cruise missile at a chemical weapons depot could just disperse an enormous cloud of nerve gas to the surrounding areas. Cruise missiles just aren't capable of incinerating all the chemicals and rendering them harmless. Which is why nobody (even the strongest supporters) ever even suggested that the U.S. would target these weapons in our airstrike plans. But an agreement which first immediately removed the weapons from the Syrian government's control and which later destroyed the weapons completely would result in a chemical-weapons-free Syria -- a much better result, militarily, for all concerned. And a much lower risk factor on all sorts of levels.

True diplomatic victories give everyone involved some benefit. Today's proposal seems like an excellent plan because it would indeed allow many to claim some portion of the credit, for both international public consumption as well as domestic. The rebels wouldn't have to worry about future chemical weapons attacks. The world wouldn't have to worry about what would happen if the weapons fell into rebel hands. Assad would be seen in a much better light on the world stage, and could tell his own people he "made America blink." Russia's international stature would be boosted, and Putin would emerge with a much better standing worldwide right before he puts on an Olympic show, and would also be able to tell his own people he solved an international crisis singlehandedly. The United Nations would retain some relevance in the world's military affairs.

President Obama could tell America he made Syria blink, and that Syria was forced into the diplomatic agreement because of the airstrike threat -- even if Congress didn't approve it. The critics who have popped up in the past week decrying Obama's delay of the airstrikes would be silenced (or at least have to come up with some different complaints), because Obama would tell America that there was indeed a reason for this delay: to give the diplomacy time to work. Congress would heave a large sigh of relief as they could avoid actually voting on the question of war (something many in Congress love to demand, but which has obviously been a lot tougher on them then they might have previously believed). The American public would likewise be pleased that America isn't getting involved in another Middle East war -- something which is incredibly unpopular at the moment.

Certainly, there are all sorts of things that could go wrong. A proposal isn't an agreement, and the details will be crucial. There will likely be problems with implementation, and the process is almost guaranteed to be slower than anyone now predicts. Even if perfectly successful, removing chemical weapons from the Syrian battlefield won't change the military situation in the ongoing civil war much at all. It would be pretty easy to be pessimistic (or even downright cynical) at this juncture in time, for these and dozens of other reasons.

Even so, the possible success of the idea is more than a little tantalizing, for all concerned. It would solve a lot of very thorny problems for a lot of the interested parties. For that reason alone -- for the possibility of averting future thorny problems -- the world needs to seriously consider the proposal floated today to solve the Syrian chemical weapons conundrum. While success is by no means guaranteed, the possible positives so outweigh the possible negatives -- including the status quo before the proposal was made public -- that it should be given the chance to work by everyone involved. Up until now, it has been popular (and rather defeatist) to say "there are no good options in Syria." Perhaps -- just perhaps -- one good option now has entered the realm of possibility.


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