David Ottaway on President Obama's Address on Syria

The Turning Point in Syria’s Civil War?

Sep 11, 2013

The Russian proposal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal has doubtlessly saved President Obama from an embarrassing political defeat in Congress, at least temporarily. If it proves impossible to implement, then his hand should be strengthened when and if he returns to Capitol Hill seeking approval for a military strike.

In any case, the Russian proposal has already forced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ‘s regime to admit finally that it does indeed possess chemical weapons and even to agree to get rid of them. This is a major and very welcome shift in Al-Assad’s position, suggesting weakness and dwindling Russian support.  The only question is whether he will now try to wriggle out of an agreement that so far only his foreign minister, Walid Moallem, has publicly declared Syria is ready to accept.

There are other ways in which this could prove a turning point in the Syrian civil war. With the international spotlight now on Syria’s chemical weapons, the chances Assad will resort to using them again are far less. This means it is also far less likely his military will succeed in ousting the rebels from Damascus’ suburbs, or from Homs and Aleppo, and that it can ever rout the opposition from the battlefield. The main reason Assad’s military resorted to chemical weapons was that it had been unable to defeat the rebels even with the use of aircraft, Scud missiles, cluster bombs and heavy artillery.                

For these and other reasons, the Russian proposal should be pursued vigorously. Should it be implemented, then international inspectors would be all over Syria. Their very presence there could change the dynamics of warfare in other ways, curbing abuses and excesses on both sides and increasing pressure for a diplomatic solution. 

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