The twists and turns of the past week have shown again just how cussed the Syria conundrum is. For the moment, the approaching crisis has been headed off. It is a moment that is unlikely to last.
Certainly, all the players including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have agreed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal that Damascus place its stockpile of chemical weapons under international control for eventual destruction. And as a diplomatic approach, this is inherently preferable to the unilateral military strikes the US was pushing for. But so far, all that exists is the tentative outline of a solution. The devil lies in the details.
For instance, taking the chemical weapons into possession supposes that Assad will act in good faith and surrender his entire stockpile. His past record shows that this may not be a safe assumption.
In addition, disposing off such weapons is a painstaking, delicate process requiring the construction of industrial facilities. This will need a substantial amount of money, manpower and expertise. It is unclear where any of this will come from particularly given that it will be happening in the middle of a brutal civil war, massively complicating the security aspect of the entire operation.
But perhaps the single biggest complicating factor is the international actors.While it would be cynical to deny Washington humanitarian concerns and a fear of what unpunished use of chemical weapons could mean for international norms, it would likewise be naive to believe they are the only motivating factors.
Washington perceives its credibility at stake here, for which US President Barack Obama has only himself to blame with his rhetoric last year of drawing a red line for Damascus. In addition, acting against Damascus serves as a shot across its vital ally Tehran’s bows.
Russia, meanwhile, has its own, opposing concerns a military base in Tartus on the Syrian coast, billions of dollars worth of arms sales to Assad and the fear that the civil war will have a negative impact on the North Caucasus region given alleged links between Dagestani Islamists and Syrian rebels.
It is also hard to dismiss the impression that Putin simply intends to maximise a moment of international relevance for Russia the likes of which have become increasingly rare since the end of the Cold War.
He has worked well towards that end so far; for all that his regime has been highly repressive at home in the year since he returned as president, he managed to position himself in this matter as a statesman and Russia as an upholder of the international order, counselling an obstreperous US to toe the UN’s line.
All of this means that the road ahead will be difficult and with no certainty of success. The first cracks have already begun to appear with the US, UK and France pushing for a UN resolution that will threaten military action if Assad fails to surrender his chemical weapons, and Russia opposing it.
But there are few options; a military intervention is likely to be either ineffective or counterproductive. In the end, a compromise worked out by the Syrian people themselves can be the only lasting solution something the international actors would do well to remember as they pursue their agendas.