Russia has proposed putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control - a possible way out of US President Barack Obama's dilemma, says political risk consultant, John Hulsman.
DW: Russia has seized on a remark by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed. Syria has now apparently agreed to this move. Could this be the breakthrough for both the US and Syria to save face and avert a military strike?
John Hulsman: I think it can be. The advantage to what Kerry proposed, or more accurately, blundered out, is that there is a metric to it. The administration would certainly have lost the House vote on Capitol Hill. The problem they were having was that they were asked: what is our objective, what can we tangibly gain from a military strike? The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, answered honestly: I don't know. But now, destroying stockpiles - this is clear, this is tangible: either they give up their chemical weapons, or they do not. So you have something measurable to look at.
Why would Russia do such a thing? Well, Russia has tremendous influence in Syria and it doesn't want America messing that up. And, as Assad is winning the war on the ground - an unpalatable reality - Russia is very happy with things on the ground as they are. They don't want things to change with America getting dragged into a broader conflict. So, Syria saves face and doesn't get bombed and the United States saves face because President Obama won't have a crushing defeat in the House and doesn't have to ignore Congress if he opts for a military strike and precipitate some sort of constitutional crisis. So, everybody wins - because the Secretary of State can't control what he says. That's the odd Bismarckian world we live in.
Everyone - including even Iran and China - appears to have jumped at this opportunity, but how verifiable would such a deal be?
The outline of the deal makes sense, but the devil, of course, is in the details. Moving chemical weapons is going to be very difficult. There are 40 confirmed sites in Syria and probably many, many more. So, how do you get people in to pull these weapons out or destroy them on site? Do we send UN inspectors into every battleground, possibly getting shot at? It doesn't sound that easy. How do we know that we've got them all? Are the Syrians going to show us all their baseball cards, as Gadhafi did with his nuclear sites? How do we verify that? How do we do it all in a week? There just isn't a lot of time. The first thing the Syrians could do is sign the UN chemical weapons accord, which they have never done. That would show good faith. Obama certainly is not going to bomb them while all this is going on, but that's another red line. Actually doing this without people being dragged into the conflict is going to be very difficult.
A deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons sounds great, but it doesn't end the country's horrific civil war. So, what happens next?
Well, this is it. This is what the Russians and the Syrians are banking on. From their point of view they don't want the US getting dragged into the conflict and upsetting the calculations on the ground, which is either a stalemate or Assad wins, or the country is partitioned into a number of regions as is currently happening with Assad controlling the coastline and the East, the rebels doing better in the West and the Kurdish enclave up near the border with Iraq. That is something that both the Russians and Assad can live with.
We've decided to draw a line at a very odd place to draw a line. Chemical weapons are horrible, but if you're dead do you really care what killed you? The bigger point is the unpalatable reality, which is that there is a terrible, horrendous civil war with vast humanitarian suffering, dragging in proxies and I think - rightly - the US is staying out of that conflict because there is no clear point in intervening. Increasingly, you have al Qaeda and jihadists fighting Assad - and that is not a war with good guys. As a result, the United States and the West should stay out.
The whole issue begs the question about a game changer for foreign policy. Is the US moving away from being the world's policeman? Are we going to be bedfellows in future with some very unsavory characters?
I think we are. In a multi-polar world the US is still, by far, the dominant country, but it's not the only power. The US is still chairman of the board, but there are a heck of a lot of new board members. The other factor, totally unremarked upon so far, is public opinion. The butcher bill for Iraq has finally come out and the butcher bill is that the American people now want proof that an intervention is worth it. No longer does 'trust me' work for the British, or for Europeans, but even more critically, for the American people and that's because of the debacle in Iraq. American are 3 to 1 against intervention in Syria because people don't want to be involved in a civil war that is not serving American interest. I don't think this makes Americans isolationist; I think this makes them sensible. Americans do not want to be the world's policeman or the world's social worker any more. They have enough problems of their own.
John Hulsman is a former senior analyst at a number of Washington think tanks and is president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a political risk consulting firm.