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Making Sense of the Russian Syria Proposal

Charles Crawford’s response to Russia’s gambit over Syrian chemical weapons is excessive, but he makes a fair point here:

There is no precedent for attempting anything like this in a country wracked by civil war. It just can’t happen. No Syrian chemical weapons will be destroyed or “handed over” quickly.

Meanwhile any new process of setting up an international monitoring and destruction regime will require painstaking UN and wider negotiation with the Assad regime, thereby giving Assad and his state apparatus a massive boost of renewed confidence and legitimacy.

Seizing on Kerry’s recent speculation about how a U.S. attack might be averted, Russia made a proposal that it had to assume that Western governments would reject outright or refuse to take seriously. Moscow has since added the condition that the U.S. “renounce the use of force” against Syria, which Washington isn’t going to accept, so I’m not sure that the proposal will go anywhere. While the Russian proposal would seem to eliminate what little support for attacking Syria there was in Congress, and the administration would be wise to take this proposal as a convenient way out of the bind that it created for itself, I don’t see how the proposal would realistically be implemented. The deal could get the administration and the U.S. out of a mess they should never have been in, but it is just as likely that it could lead to the passage of a Security Council resolution that some governments could use as a fig leaf for later military intervention.

The administration’s plan for attacking Syria made no sense, but it’s also hard to ignore that the “solution” proposed by Moscow seems completely impractical. How would the proposed international monitors be able to operate in the middle of a civil war? Who would protect them? Which countries would be willing to put their people at risk to perform these tasks? In order to avert an “unbelievably small” military strike, Syria is going to permit the insertion of a U.N. mission of unknown size to move about the country? While this mission is trying to do its work, the conflict in Syria will continue unabated, and U.N. personnel will potentially be both targets and bystanders to whatever outrages the warring parties commit.

If there is some way to implement the proposal, I do have to wonder if the administration is willing to take yes for an answer. Administration officials have gone so far out on a limb rhetorically that it seems difficult to believe that they would be willing to accept a deal with Syria. Having dismissed the U.N. as irrelevant just last week, it is possible that the administration won’t be willing to pursue this alternative to an attack. I very much hope I’m wrong, but over the last few weeks the administration has given Americans absolutely no reason to be confident that they will make the wise or rational choice on Syria policy.

Update: As Max Fisher notes, Russia doesn’t seem to want the Security Council to pass a resolution on this proposal, and so may not really support doing it.

Second Update: As Yochi Dreazen points out, disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons would be very difficult:

Experts in chemical weapons disposal point to a host of challenges. Taking control of Assad’s enormous stores of the munitions would be difficult to do in the midst of a brutal civil war. Dozens of new facilities for destroying the weapons would have to be built from scratch, and completing the job would potentially take a decade or more. The work itself would need to be done by specially-trained military personnel. Guess which country has most of those troops? If you said the U.S., you’d be right [bold mine-DL].

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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