The United States-Russia agreement to provide a “framework” for the inspection, removal and eventual destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons proves diplomacy is not a spent force in international politics: it has been creatively deployed in this case to not only stave off potentially disastrous military intervention, but also break new ground in troubleshooting the Syrian crisis politically. The deal — signed Saturday in Geneva by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart John Kerry — requires Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to allow for immediate “on-site inspections of all declared sites” which produce and stockpile chemical munitions. The agreement proposes to “eliminate” all WMD material in Syria within the “first half of 2014.” With Syria having formally acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the inspection will be supervised by the treaty’s watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as well as the U.N. These remarkable developments, which come barely a week after a West-led attack on Syria seemed all but inevitable, represent a stunning victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who urged the U.S. via an op-ed in the New York Times to “stop using the language of force and return to the path of [...] diplomatic settlement.” His attempt marks one of the most politically savvy gestures by a head of state to reach across the aisle to a foreign audience in recent years.
Saturday’s deal is a game-changer in more ways than one. On the one hand, it could prevent further escalation of violence, including the use of WMDs, in Syria. On the other, weapons inspection necessitates a cease-fire agreement between the government and the rebels in many parts of the country, which can only help the case for political dialogue. That said, the power struggle between the U.S. and Russia on this issue will continue unabated. If the West has been saved the blushes of going to war without domestic support, it will now exploit any claim of Syria’s non-compliance to initiate a military strike. Moscow seems amenable to a Chapter VII resolution at the U.N. Security Council to goad Syria into cooperating, but will insist on a tight draft that eschews the use of force against Assad’s regime. Syria’s accession to the CWC leaves Israel and Egypt, staunch American allies, as the only two holdouts in the region to remain outside major treaties banning WMDs. To counter this strategic imbalance, Russia has sought to push the Syrian deal as a precursor to a “WMD-free Middle East”. Laudable though that goal is, this should not deter multilateral efforts to seize the momentum the Geneva deal has offered to nudge the Syrian conflict’s principal actors toward the negotiating table.
This article has been corrected for a typographical error