By Andi Zhou
After a few months out of the spotlight, Syria is back in the news with a couple of major headlines that must have Bashar al-Assad chuckling quietly to himself somewhere in the bowels of Damascus. Syria's chemical weapons are finally shipping out pursuant to an agreement signed last September, but only after weeks of delays as regime forces reestablished control over key transit routes. Meanwhile, the "terrorist" elements of the Syrian opposition that the West once dismissed as a scapegoat are now taking aim at moderate rebels and have even taken over several cities in western Iraq. With rebels preventing chemical weapons from leaving Syria and al-Qaeda militants spilling into Iraq, suddenly the West can't treat Assad like such a bad guy anymore. What happened to those bygone days when Assad's eventual ouster seemed like a forgone conclusion?
Let’s backtrack and take a closer look at the September agreement. The agreement came about because both the U.S. and Syria wanted to avoid a U.S. military intervention: Syria for obvious reasons, the U.S. because it was still washing out the bad aftertaste of Iraq. However, pressure to act on behalf of the Syrian people mounted from humanitarian voices at home and abroad. Facing accusations of negligence and comparisons to previous cases of U.S. inaction such as Rwanda, President Obama ad-libbed his now infamous “red line”: if Syria used chemical or biological weapons, his “calculus would change” regarding U.S. intervention.
President Obama may have thought he sounded tough, but in reality his words played right into Assad’s hands. He had unwittingly redefined Assad’s crime—it was no longer killing civilians, but a method of killing, a method that accounts for very few of the 90,000 or so lives that the war had already taken up to that point. Indeed, when evidence emerged in April 2013 that Assad had, in fact, used chemical weapons, the world immediately shifted its focus from stopping the civil war to removing the chemical weapons. Initially, it seemed that Assad had grossly miscalculated, as the U.S. and several of its allies began preparations for possible military action. But when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared—also ad-libbing—that military intervention in Syria could be called off if Syria pledged to turn over all of its chemical weapons within a week, it should have come as no surprise that Assad jumped at the opportunity.
The resulting deal gave both sides what they wanted most: it allowed the U.S. to pat itself on the back for averting a chemical holocaust without an all-out intervention, but it also gave Assad a blank check to continue slaughtering his people without the use of chemical weapons. Besides this depraved latter outcome, another key point the U.S. ignored or overlooked was that the deal placed U.S. interests in Syria at odds with each other. Though the U.S. was funding and arming Syrian rebels, the deal held the Assad regime responsible for handing over chemical weapons stockpiles scattered all over Syrian territory—weapons the regime would not be able to retrieve unless it first controlled the territory.
This paradox has played out spectacularly as the agreement is implemented. For the past several months, a joint UN-OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) team has been in Syria coordinating the destruction of whatever weapons can be destroyed on-site, while a U.S. government-owned ship—the Cape Ray—has been readied to take any weapons that cannot (namely nerve agents such as sarin and mustard gas.) The ship was supposed to have collected the weapons from the Syrian port of Latakia and destroyed them all on-board by December 31, 2013; New Year's came and went, and yet the Cape Ray remained docked in Virginia. What's preventing the ship from setting sail and getting its job done? Not Big Bad Bashar, as it turns out. According to The New York Times, "among the biggest problems is the highway that joins Damascus to the coast, which has been recently retaken by the government but where rebel forces continue to be a threat to vehicles and the fear of ambush remains intense."
With the rise and fall of the West's fortunes now tied with his own, Assad can rest easy as the West struggles to keep its support for Syrian rebels from sinking its own plans for getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons. Assad's glee must have soared to even greater heights when news broke that rebel infighting is approaching full-blown war and the most radical faction—the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—had entered Iraq and captured Fallujah, where hundreds of U.S. soldiers died to retake the city from al-Qaeda fighters in 2004. Some voices in the U.S. are now even pointing to Assad as the best hope for stability, including former CIA director Michael Hayden, who recently called an Assad victory "the best out of three very, very ugly possible outcomes." (He didn’t even consider a rebel victory “possible.”)
All told, these latest developments can only be encouraging news for Assad, whose position now looks more secure than ever since the war began. The U.S. and the international community will now have to pinch their noses and work with the Assad regime to make good on their promise to rid Syria of chemical weapons, which is beginning to smell more and more like either a bumbling miscalculation or an ill-fated attempt at saving face. Meanwhile, the rebel movement is splitting at the seams and sowing instability where the U.S. fears it most. But the shortest end of this many-pronged stick goes, as always, to the Syrian people, who suffer on in silence as the world turns its attention elsewhere.