The Syrian regime today told the United Nations that it intends to sign and abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. This commitment does two things that change the dynamics of the international response to Syria regardless of whether it is implemented.
First, it ends arguments about whether Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has chemical weapons, and whether the concern with his using them is "just" an American preoccupation. Second, it gives the international and intrusive United Nations machinery a real and expanding role in dealing with Syria's chemical stocks, potentially starting to move Russia off center stage.
The Washington Post's Ezra Klein interprets an interview that Assad gave today as a "ransom note": that Assad will not agree to move forward on chemical weapons destruction unless the U.S. agrees to stop arming his opponents. It's almost touching to see Assad trying to inflate the importance of recent U.S. arms shipments, even as Syrian rebels continue to say they aren't getting what they want. But if Assad has that interpretation, it's a major plus for Washington. Here's why every step toward getting Syria's name on the Chemical Weapons Convention is a plus for Washington:
Implementation is no longer in Russia's hands alone. As American politics takes a detour into obsessing with Vladimir Putin and his Thursday op-ed, Assad's move to the U.N. actually begins the process of pushing Russia back out of the spotlight. Rather than foresee a future in which Assad hands chemicals straight to Russia, Assad's signal of intent to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention kicks off a process that should put the U.N. out front in moving quickly to get Assad's signature and establish what will comprise ratification. (You can see Assad claiming rebel attacks make it hard for the Syrian People's Council, elected last year during the civil war, to meet. But its speaker has been sending fan letters to anti-war Western politicians without difficulty.)
As soon as that happens – or before, if Syria were to announce that it will begin abiding by the Convention, as Russia should be asked to pressure it to do – Syria becomes liable for declaring all of its weapons and production sites within 30 days, allowing 100 percent of them to be inspected by trained international inspectors affiliated with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and destroyed in a manner that can be verified by the OPCW. The Russians have apparently suggested to Washington that a model for how Syrian stocks are verifiably destroyed could be the joint U.S.-Russian destruction of old Soviet stocks carried out under the provisions of the Nunn-Lugar Agreement. Phones over at Nunn's Nuclear Threat Initiative, which on its own has overseen removal of nuclear materials from some dicey places, should be ringing off the hook about now.
The standard for success becomes clearer. Pundits weighed in faster than a senator to a camera on the difficulty of destroying all of Syria's chemical stocks. That's the wrong standard. 16 years after the U.S. and Russia joined the treaty, we've destroyed 90 percent of our stocks and Russia 65 percent of its. What's the right standard? Every pound destroyed is a pound that can't be used by Assad, can't fall into the hands of extremist groups and doesn't swell the target list for possible military intervention.
Assad puts himself on the line internationally. The treaty text is simple, committing its signatories "never … to use chemical weapons" and "to destroy chemical weapons it owns or possesses." The treaty also foresees a compliance mechanism – a soft one, but one much-discussed in recent days: "the Conference shall, in cases of particular gravity, bring the issue, including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council." The use of "shall" is important. The treaty doesn't say that treaty members vote on whether or not to refer to the Security Council, or that they "may" refer serious noncompliance to the Security Council. It says that they will. So one of Russia's prior avenues for vetoing Security Council consideration would be removed.
Most important, Assad runs the risk, if his regime uses chemical weapons again, that Washington's strike plans will be right back on the table, with considerably more international support. The rebels know this, and are likely to push him as hard as they can. Which hardly adds up to a win for Assad. It does, however, add up to the chance for a big win for the U.N., the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and the power of … words.
Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.