Is Assad just buying time with his pledge to turn over chemical weapons?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have averted a US strike by agreeing to hand over his chemical arsenal but the move could backfire against his weakened regime, analysts say.
Damascus quickly embraced a Russian plan for it to hand over its chemical arsenal.
The initiative defused talk of a strike, but if the regime breaks its pledge, it could provide the United States with a justification to go to war.
If it implements the plan to turn over its weapons for destruction and join a chemical arms ban, “it would show that Syria backs off when challenged militarily,” said Volker Perthes of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“The regime is weak enough, contrary to all its statements, to give in on something they wouldn’t even have talked about a few days before,” he told AFP.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem announced on Tuesday that Syria is ready to give other countries and the United Nations access to its arsenal, for the first time officially confirming it possesses such weapons.
As US President Barack Obama rushed to gain congressional support to strike Assad’s regime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Muallem in Moscow and proposed that Damascus hand over its chemical arms.
Talk of a strike came after an alleged chemical attack near Damascus on August 21 that the Syrian opposition claimed killed some 1,400 people.
Damascus has regularly claimed to be on the verge of defeating a rebellion that broke out on the back of an anti-Assad protest movement that erupted in March 2011.
More than 110,000 people have been killed in the conflict since then, and millions forced to flee their homes.
Perthes said Syrian cooperation now with the international community “which leads to handing over the weapons, yes, indeed, that would weaken Assad.”
“It wouldn’t change the situation on the ground directly, but he would appear weaker, which would give some boost to the opposition.”
But he said he was skeptical that the Syrian leader would comply, adding that Assad was more likely to use the move to buy time.
The regime “will use (the Russian initiative) to buy time, and will try to find all kinds of arguments to escape the commitments (that) automatically come with entering the Chemical Arms Convention,” said Perthes.
Karim Bitar of the French Institute of International and Strategic Studies was equally sceptical of the regime’s intentions.
“The big question is: will the regime really put its chemical weapons under international control?” Bitar told AFP.
“We need to see whether the regime isn’t just doing what it usually does, which is to try to manipulate the international community,” he added.
Peter Harling of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group noted that a transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles would be virtually impossible under the current circumstances.
“Handing over all chemical weapons stockpiles is technically implausible in the current context — because their destruction would entail a massive, intrusive oversight mechanism that would be challenging even in the best of circumstances,” he said.
For Syria to relinquish its chemical arms “could prove suicidal because they stand as the regime’s last-resort deterrent,” he added.
But if the regime does try to stall, it could pave the way for the very foreign military action it was hoping to stave off, he said.
“Not handing them over, after admitting their existence and offering to do so, could be the casus belli the US was struggling to define in the first place.”
Perthes agreed, pointing out that US-led strikes remain in the background, despite the mooted new plan.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that Assad’s failure to hand over his chemical arsenal would bring “extremely serious” consequences under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, allowing possible military action.
Though Obama “wants to avoid war,” said Perthes, “Chapter VII would give international legitimacy to using force.
“The military option is still on the table, and it needs to be there.”