by Mark N. Katz
Why has Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made his dramatic proposal for the Syrian government to not only put its chemical weapons under international control, but also destroy them? There are two possibilities.
This could be a Russian attempt to avert the US military strike on Syria that President Obama called for in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against so many of its own citizens on Aug. 21. Fully understanding that support for such a move is weak within Congress, among America’s allies, and in Western public opinion, Moscow hopes that its diplomatic initiative will prevent a strike that would weaken the Assad regime’s ability to defeat its opponents with conventional weapons.
In light of both Soviet and post-Soviet Russian diplomatic efforts, the chance that such cynical motives underlie Lavrov’s initiative cannot be ruled out. But there is another possibility. Considering that Moscow has heretofore denied that Damascus has or ever would use chemical weapons, Lavrov’s proposal could be seen as a stark warning to Assad: either surrender your chemical weapons to international control and destruction, or Moscow will do nothing to defend you against an American strike.
The truth is that these two possible motives are not mutually exclusive. Russia could be simultaneously trying to rally forces in the West wishing to prevent a strike and warning Damascus that its use of chemical weapons last month went too far — even for Moscow.
One thing, though, is certain: Lavrov only made this proposal because Obama has issued a credible threat to strike Syria.
Bashar al-Assad may have accepted the Lavrov proposal because he understands that Saddam Hussein’s non-compliance with the UN Security Council’s weapons of mass destruction inspection program in 2002-03 was seized upon by the Bush administration as justification for a US-led invasion. It is doubtful, though, that Assad will give up his chemical weapons even at Moscow’s behest if he does not feel the threat of a debilitating American attack (even if it’s not an outright invasion).
The immediate reaction of both the Senate and President Obama to the Lavrov proposal has been talk of delaying any such attack — which is exactly what Moscow and Damascus wanted. For the US to incentivize Assad to actually surrender his chemical weapons Washington must maintain the threat of a large-scale attack against him unless Assad complies immediately.