Will The Russian Plan Work?

Michael Crowley claims that it is “likely to fail”:

Last year, the Pentagon estimated that securing the dozens of sites at which Syrian chemical weapons are thought to be stored could take up to 75,000 U.S. troops. A much smaller number (of what would almost certainly will be Russian, and/or United Nations personnel) should be required here, given the presumed cooperation of the Syrian government; they won’t have to shoot their way in. But it’s still a mighty task that could require many hundreds, if not thousands, of trained professionals — plus ample security to protect them: remember that U.N. inspectors were fired upon in Syria earlier this month. “It is a daunting task to get a hold of all these weapons,” deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken told CNN Monday afternoon, “and you probably need a cease-fire.” The odds of that seem awfully small, not least because it would require the fanatical Islamist fighters of al Nusra to agree.

Jeffrey Goldberg also throws cold water:

All Assad has to do to forever stave off a punitive strike is to keep promising that he’s in the middle of giving up his chemical weapons. (No one, by the way, has addressed the fate of his biological weapons.) This is a process that could go on for months, or even years. Yes, that’s right — we might be reading stories soon about United Nations weapons inspectors roaming Syria (a war zone, it should be noted) in a hunt for missing WMD. There are hundreds of tons of chemical munitions in Syria, and very few people think Assad would part with all of them. Why would he? Chemical weapons are a major deterrent to those outside Syria who seek his demise.

Here’s what I’d say in response. Our fundamental interest is in upholding the norm against chemical weapons and ending their use in Syria. Even if the process Jeffrey describes were to take the length of time he suggests, would it not nonetheless do the trick? Would Assad actually use chemical weapons again now that his key patron, Russia, has put its weight behind the Chemical Weapons C0nvention, is in charge of implementing it, and is on record as saying chemical weapons use is intolerable?

The formula for WMD disarmament is pretty simple: the reformed government hands over all it’s got, the stockpiles are checked, the weapons completely destroyed. Russia is now committed to this – and although the process would be possible, as long as Assad still has total control over the weapons, it should be feasible. As for the danger of delay, think back to Iraq.

Do we really believe we were right not to simply keep pressing for more inspections rather than going to war when we did? Delay would not have been fatal then, despite the hawks’ (i.e. my) rhetoric at the time, and it would not be fatal now. Maybe if we stopped rehashing the tired, lazy conceits of zero-sum politics (see this classic from Politico), we could focus on what the US actually wants to achieve as an end-result, and focus like a laser on it.

But skepticism – profound skepticism – toward the Russians and Syrians on this maneuver is certainly valid. The practicalities need to be explored, the deadlines clear, the consequences obvious. And delaying the Congressional vote is no big deal. It makes perfect sense for the US to wait and see if the Russian proposal pays off. If it doesn’t, if the deal falls apart, and if there is another use of chemical weapons by Assad, the case for striking may well be much stronger.

Yes, this is all very unsatisfying – but often tangible success is unsatisfying. You want satisfaction? Jump from a helicopter in front of a banner calls “Mission Accomplished.” You want to achieve your goals? It’s OK to look weak or to cede credit to others. As long as you get what you want.