A Russian-brokered proposal to place Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control for eventual destruction would resonate far beyond Damascus and highlight the stakes at play among Assad’s friends, foes and nervous bystanders struggling with the complexities of Syria’s civil war.
Here’s a look at the possible winners and losers under Moscow’s 11th-hour plan:
RUSSIA AND IRAN
Syria’s main backers Iran and Russia have strongly opposed Western military retaliation over a suspected sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 — questioning the West’s contention that Assad’s forces were to blame instead of rebels, and warning of an even wider conflict in the Middle East. Both countries would certainly emerge claiming victory in the latest brinksmanship.
For Moscow, it means recognition of its role as an international mediator that can do more than just try to block Western initiatives at the U.N. Security Council. It also drives home the importance of Russian participation in any future efforts to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Syria remains Russia’s main foothold in the Middle East and an important Mediterranean port.
Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly stressed that his nation is an essential player in the Syrian crisis and can — if its interests demand — work with the U.S. and others on potential solutions. U.S. President Barack Obama said the Russian proposal had been raised during his 20-minute meeting with Putin on the sidelines of last week’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Iran has even more on the line. It depends on Syria as its linchpin Arab world partner and a pathway to Iran’s proxy militia, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Anything that could weaken Assad’s hold on power is seen with deep unease in Tehran. But while the Islamic Republic often trumpets its loyalty to Assad, it has gradually put forth the idea that the leader is expendable but his power structure is not. Iran has proposed peace initiatives — rejected by rebels — that would allow elections that could oust Assad but leave intact key elements of his Iran-friendly rule.
Iran’s quandary over Assad has been compounded by the alleged government-backed chemical attack. Iranian troops suffered chemical clouds during the 1980-88 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the deaths and suffering of veterans is a centerpiece of Iran’s commemorations of the conflict.
Assad’s choices bring together survival and surrender.
The Russian plan would allow the Syrian leader to avoid the damage that U.S.-led strikes, no matter how narrow and limited, would certainly inflict on a Syrian military already stretched thin and under tremendous strain from a more than two-year civil war. It also would block a possible stepped up rebel offensive linked to any Western military action.
Yet Assad would be forced to relinquish his chemical arms stocks and open the door to possible deeper international probes into the extent of his wider arsenal as inspectors look for chemical stores. The Syrian opposition accuses the regime of using such weapons on several occasions, but the casualties from such purported attacks have been a mere fraction of the total death toll in the conflict.
Some critics have called Assad’s quick support of the Russian plan a potential stalling tactic, allowing him to quell Western debate over military action while drawing out the process of actually turning over the chemical stocks. In any case, Assad has benefited in the past from unexpected directions, including al-Qaida inspired militants joining the rebellion and raising concern in the West about whether extremist forces could gain ground if Assad was toppled.
WASHINGTON AND ALLIES
Obama led the calls for military action in partnership with European allies, but also with the knowledge that support was weak at home for another U.S. strike in the Middle East.
The Russian plan provides Washington with something of a dignified retreat. Obama can claim that the threat of American-led attacks had a double effect: Forcing Assad to promise to give up his chemical weapons and admit to the world he possessed such an arsenal. The White House also can say its muscle prompted Russia into quick action to move its plan beyond just words. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that his country was working out the details with Syria. Russia would then finalize the plan with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The diplomatic energy allows Obama to shift his message to Congress. Instead of trying to sell a military strike that has limited public support, he can let the current initiatives move ahead and possibly avoid a political collision course. Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Since the Russian proposal emerged earlier this week, Obama has been in near constant contact with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who also would be handed the equivalent of a political escape clause after being deeply embarrassed last month when parliament rejected his call to back the possible military strikes.
REBELS AND THEIR BACKERS
On its surface, the deal was aimed at providing protection for the opposition by preventing chemical attacks against them. But rebel factions are left potentially disappointed that, after more than two years, the West would not commit to even limited military strikes against Assad. The main opposition group had been hoping the chemical weapons allegations would prove a tipping point to provoke military strikes from abroad that would shift the balance in the war of attrition between rebels and Assad’s forces. The Syrian National Coalition has dismissed the Assad government’s turnaround as a maneuver to escape punishment for a crime against humanity.
The Russian plan will likely force the rebels to increasingly look to key backers in the Western-backed Persian Gulf states, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as their most reliable and predictable backers. Delaying or calling off potential military strikes is also likely to be met with disapproval by Washington’s Arab allies in the Gulf, which have been funneling money and arms shipments to the rebels.
Though Israel was among those most supportive of a military strike on Syria — and some Israeli politicians have already voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of Russia’s proposal — Israel appeared generally pleased with the emerging deal.
The government hasn’t commented publicly, but officials speaking anonymously to Israeli media said Syria’s agreement to give up its chemical weapons is a direct result of the American threat and sends a strong message to Iran — that only a credible military option can truly deter. Israel hopes that just as Syria folded when faced with military might, so will Iran and ultimately abandon its nuclear program.
David Shain, an expert in international relations who specializes in Iran, wrote Tuesday in the Maariv daily that for Israel the main upside is that Assad’s chemical weapons will no longer be able to threaten it. “The only ones who won’t be happy about accepting the Russian proposal are the citizens of Syria,” he wrote. “It’s clear to everyone that accepting the proposal will mean more of the brutal Syrian civil war.”
Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni neither welcomed nor rejected the Russian proposal, but said that the threat of force should remain on the table no matter what becomes of Syria’s weapons arsenal.