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Russian plan just a 'get out of jail free' card for Syria's Assad

With President Obama working hard to rally support for a military strike on Syria, a top aide to President Bashar Assad on Monday endorsed a Russian proposal to have the regime surrender its stockpile of toxic arms to international authorities.

We win! Woo-hoo! Oh, wait....

It would indeed be a great thing if Obama could wipe out Assad's chemical weapons without U.S. troops having to fire a shot (or a cruise missile). After all, the stated purpose of the proposed strike was to "degrade" Assad's capability to use toxic weapons; the plan by Russia, a close Syrian ally, promised to go further than that.

But the real point of the plan is to avoid holding Assad accountable for an escalating series of chemical weapons attacks over the last year. It's essentially a "get out of jail free" pass for allegedly using toxic arms two months after top U.S. officials accused Assad of crossing a "red line" with a gas attack that killed at least 100 Syrians in June.

The June attack led Obama to decide to provide arms for the first time to Syrian rebels, using the CIA to funnel them to moderate factions within the anti-Assad forces. (Not that we rushed to do so; the Wall Street Journal reported last week that no U.S. arms had reached the rebels yet.) The assault in August has prompted a more outraged response because it was, by the administration's count, 10 times as deadly as the one in June.

If Assad is indeed responsible for the series of gas attacks, letting him turn over the rest of his stockpile would send an unsettling message to other strongmen around the world: Go ahead and use chemical weapons until the United States appears ready to send bombers your way; you can turn the planes back by promising to surrender whatever toxins you have left.

Even worse, if there's no certainty of punishment aside from the loss of one's stockpile, despots might be tempted to use as much gas as possible in the first go-round.

And yet, I'm not sanguine about the effects of a U.S. military strike, either on Assad or future leaders of rogue states desperately trying to cling to power. I explored the absence of good options two weeks ago, in this post. It's hard to discern the difference between an ineffectual response and no response at all, at least when it comes to deterring the use of chemical weapons. And I don't see how the U.S. could respond effectively without getting sucked into an ugly civil war.

No good options, indeed.

Still, I can't help but think that the Russians and Syrians have outmaneuvered Obama, who's been publicly -- and rightly -- reluctant to get enmeshed in yet another conflict in the Middle East. By making the offer now, before United Nations inspectors have offered their conclusions about chemical weapons use in Syria, Assad and his allies are capitalizing on the widespread opposition among Americans to military intervention. That war-weariness amplifies the skepticism toward the administration's argument that there's sufficient proof of Assad's culpability.

Assad, naturally, insists that there's no evidence linking him to the attacks, despite what the White House claims. Credible observers seem to agree that Syrians have been gassed, but Assad's defenders insist that the rebels are to blame, or possibly pro-government militias acting independently. There's also been speculation that government troops carried out the latest one without getting the leadership's permission, although if that's true, that would hardly relieve the regime of responsibility. The implication, after all, is that troops could use chemical weapons if their commanders gave the OK.

The official U.S. position on the Russian plan has been receptive, in a "trust but verify" sense. At a White House news briefing Monday, deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken discussed the proposal in a way that perfectly captures the bind Obama finds himself in. Here's a long excerpt of Blinken's remarks, which convey both skepticism about the plan and a recognition that it offers a (potentially chimerical) way to step back from the brink of intervention:

"I think it’s important to keep a few things in mind.  First of all, the international community has tried for 20 years to get Syria to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, joining 189 other countries in doing so. Now it is one of only five countries that haven't done it. And just last week, President Assad wouldn't even say whether he had chemical weapons despite overwhelming evidence he’s actually used them....

"And of course, we've also tried to work with the Russians at the United Nations repeatedly on Syria and chemical weapons for months. And until now they have blocked all of our initiatives, including simple press statements, never mind a Security Council resolution. 

"So that's the background. It’s also important to note that Syria has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world; it’s spread across the country. It would certainly take time, resources and probably a peaceful environment to deal with this....

"[W]e would welcome Assad giving up his chemical weapons, doing it in a verifiable manner, so that we can account for them and destroy them. That’s the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve -- to make sure that he can’t use them again. That would be terrific. 

"But, unfortunately, the track record to date, including recent statements by Assad not even acknowledging that he has chemical weapons, doesn’t give you a lot of confidence. But that said, we want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed, and we will."

In a political campaign, candidates vie to control the message of the day. On Monday, while the administration was blitzing the media to make the case for a military strike, Russia and Syria found a way to shift attention to a nonmilitary alternative. Maybe that's a win for everyone concerned, not the least being the Syrian civilians who have no way to defend themselves against nerve gas attacks. (Not that they're having an easy time defending themselves against conventional artillery shells and bullets, but a gas attack is more insidious.) But it feels more like a clever attempt by Assad to duck back onto the other side of the red line.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey and Google+

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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