A week ago, a reporter asked John Kerry what Bashar al-Assad could do to avert an American-led military attack in response to his use of chemical weapons. The secretary of state responded, now famously: “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
All of that in a week? Kerry is right. It cannot be done. But the Syrian president does face tight deadlines, starting in a matter of days, an agreement reached over the weekend between the United States and Russia on a timetable for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Syria must submit within a week a complete list of its chemical weapons, plus its storage and production facilities.
The agreement calls for international inspectors to have “immediate and unfettered” access to the sites. The chemical mixing agent must be destroyed by November, and Syria stripped of chemical weapons and its capacity to produce them in less than a year. The process usually takes much longer, reflecting the care required to ensure the work is done safely and securely.
Yet what is most important in this instance is getting started, Assad keeping his word about destroying the stockpiles “without any preconditions.” Russia long has played the benefactor to Syria, putting the credibility of Vladimir Putin at stake, the Russian president having leaped at the opening Kerry presented with his answer.
Washington and its allies have in mind a U.N. Security Council resolution taking shape in a couple of weeks. That, too, provides an early test of the Russian and Syrian commitment.
For all the ambivalence and sloppiness of the Obama White House in its handling of this episode, it has landed in a helpful place. Syria abandoning its chemical weapons represents an advance that goes beyond the degrading of the arsenal that President Obama described as a leading reason for the proposed attack. And if Assad and the Russians begin to play cat-and-mouse, delaying implementation? The Obama team would have a stronger argument for rallying international support.
Part of the president’s hesitance about entering the Syrian civil war has been understandable. Weigh the options, projecting the impact a step or two or three ahead, and it becomes apparent how easily things could get worse, say, the conflict spreading, adding to the turmoil and refugees
At the same time, there is a role for the United States, standing for a longtime international consensus, responding to the humanitarian crisis, arming moderates opposed to Assad, using its leverage to press urgently for a diplomatic solution. For that final element, the moment is advantageous, the danger in Syria more fully exposed.