Three weeks ago, he was seeking Congressional approval for air strikes on Syria that might not have even accomplished his goal of deterring further use of chemical weapons. Now, thanks to Obama’s threats, Syria has reversed course: It has admitted to possessing chemical weapons and agreed to get rid of them.
Already, Syria has signed up to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention banning these weapons and, in a first step toward dismantling them, provided the United Nations with a list of its chemical weapons facilities.
Critics of Obama’s diplomatic track point out that the UN Security Council has yet to pass a resolution enforcing Syrian disarmament, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could cheat, and that, in any event, it is impossible to disarm a country in the midst of a civil war.
These concerns, while valid, miss the point. At best, air strikes might have deterred Syria from using chemical weapons, which is the same result we’re seeing today: Having agreed to give up its chemical weapons, Syria can hardly use them. Weapons concealed from inspectors have almost no military value, as American and other intelligence agencies would quickly detect any effort to deploy such weapons, and a swift military response would follow.
Syria has nothing to gain by cheating on its disarmament obligations, and even if it does not fully disarm – due to war or deceit – it will still have to give up a large part of its arsenal.
From a Western perspective, Iran’s nuclear program constitutes a far greater threat to global security than Syria’s chemical weapons. The good news is that, despite decades of hostile rhetoric, the United States and Iran have more in common than many would think. Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have both expressed a desire to resolve the nuclear dispute, and while there is no certainty that they can reach an agreement, there is reason to be hopeful. Iran has repeated that it does not want nuclear weapons, and has issued a fatwa against them.
It is unlikely that Rouhani would have reached out to the United States on the nuclear issue had the United States attacked Syria, Iran’s ally.
Despite possible progress on chemical and nuclear weapons, however, there is still the larger issue of Syria’s civil war. The opposition has been losing ground in the past few months, and there is no reason to doubt the conventional assessment that recent diplomacy has strengthened Assad.
Syrian opposition leaders complain that the Obama administration has been late and stingy in providing weapons and other support. The problems of the Syrian opposition, however, are largely internal. The moderate elements have been unable to contain the Sunni extremists, whose atrocities turn off other Syrians and outside supporters. The opposition has also turned a deaf ear to the 35 percent of Syria’s population that are not Sunni Arabs: the Alawites, Kurds, Christians, and Druze.
The Alawites fear genocide if the regime they supported for decades falls. From the uprising’s beginning, rebels have shouted “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the grave,” and atrocities committed by Alawite soldiers and militiamen in defense of Assad make retribution ever more likely. The opposition has done nothing to assure the Alawites of a place – or even survival – in a post-Assad Syria.
The Kurds, who were long denied recognition and even citizenship, now run much of northern Syria. They have claimed their own region and want autonomy similar to that enjoyed by Iraq’s Kurds. The regime has acquiesced, while the opposition insists that the future of Syria must be decided democratically – meaning by the Sunni Arab majority.
Christians and Druze likewise fear they will have a smaller place – or no place at all – in a post-Assad Syria.
Searching for a solution to Syria’s civil war, the United States and Russia plan to co-host a conference in Geneva. The Obama administration wants to bring together the Assad regime and a single opposition delegation to negotiate a transfer of power. Of course, the Assad regime and its backers are unlikely to agree, and the minority groups, particularly the Kurds, want their own place at the table – they don’t want to be lumped with an opposition whose agenda they don’t share.
A conference with all Syria’s factions – the regime, the Sunni Arab opposition, and the minorities – that focuses on power-sharing rather than simply regime change offers the most realistic chance to end Syria’s bloody civil war.
If the Obama administration can sustain its momentum – from a Syrian chemical weapons deal to an Iranian nuclear deal to a successful Syrian peace conference – it will pull off a diplomatic triple crown that could transform the Near East.
Peter Woodard Galbraith is an author, academic, commentator, politician, policy advisor, and former United States diplomat.