Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Syria Deal

by Elliott Abrams
September 16, 2013


The text of the framework agreement between the United States and Russia leaves one with more questions than answers.

Until last week Syria denied having any chemical weapons, so its willingness to account for 100% of them is, to say the least, in doubt. Secretary Kerry himself said, when he first mentioned a possible deal, that it couldn’t work. And our partner in this endeavor, Russia, has itself failed to meet all its obligations with respect to chemical weapons. Worse, it remains the key conventional weapons supplier to Syria.

Thus we are left wondering if Russian planes might arrive in Syria to help remove chemical weapons–but laden with more  conventional weaponry for the regime. And wondering again why this is a good deal if it results in another 100,000 Syrian civilian deaths, more tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons, and more destruction. Iranian and Hezbollah military personnel continue to aid and in some cases direct the efforts of the regime. The Wall Street Journal put it this way:

The training of thousands of fighters is an outgrowth of Iran’s decision last year to immerse itself in the Syrian civil war on behalf of its struggling ally, the Assad regime, in an effort to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Syria’s bloodshed is shaping into more than a civil war: It is now a proxy war among regional powers jockeying for influence in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions.

What is our reaction? Apparently it is a small program of assistance for the Syrian rebels, one that was announced in June but got off the ground only weeks ago–two and half years into this war.

President Obama said this on September 10th:

When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.

Nevertheless the deal with Russia does not punish Assad or strike a blow at the regime; it merely says “don’t do it again.” So the lesson for dictators who commit atrocities is that you can use chemical weapons 10 or 15 times, and then you may be asked to give them up. Period. It’s like telling an ax murderer that his punishment is to give up his ax–or to promise to give up the ax and promise that he has no more axes hidden anywhere else.

The Syrian regime, and Iran, and Hezbollah, and Russia, seem very pleased with this diplomatic achievement. But why should we be?

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Johnson

    Sir, there’s just one thing I’ve not found in the many analysis and commentaries I have read on the necessity of punishing Assad. Obviously, the hand-over of Syrian chemical weapons, if it happens, does not address Assad’s brutality and ‘war crimes’. But, would an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court fill in this gap? I think that such a warrant would show that he hasn’t escaped punishment for his crimes and also reinforces the usefulness of the court in these times.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    I agree that prosecution in the ICC would reaffirm that Assad has committed war crimes, and that handing over his chemical weapons now–after using them a dozen or more times–does not get him off the hook.

  • Posted by Brian

    Should Israel also hand in its chemical and nuclear weapons ? And why is CFR claiming Iran sends forces into Syria when they haven’t? And why support Sunni Islamic terrorism ?

  • Posted by Syed Wajahat Ali

    From a neutral’s point of view, it all seems too good to be true. There is obviously some backdoor or shall I say, “under-the-table” diplomacy involved in this entire “chemical weapon” deal.

    The reason why Russia and her allies are “OK” or “Pleased” with this entire situation is because they are considering this a zero-sum game. While this might be true on several scales, but the true victory here is of the West. Yes people died, and yes it is a major catastrophe indeed, but overall, Syria is not the Syria that marched into Lebanon some years back. This is a weak Syria free from the clutches of Assad (most part of the country) and less than a police state it used to be. Iran regardless of their rhetorics have lost a powerful ally in the region. Syria is on the verge of collapse as military power and the Russian know they can not continue with arming the Syrian specially after the recent Chemical attack fiasco. Moscow fears the international condemnation from the international community while there is a also a little matter of the winter games coming up.

    This all has been achieved with no boots on the ground but with internal sabotage and espionage including arming the rebels exploiting the common sentiments of the opposition.

    The only fear I have is a Libyan style civil anarchy that Syria might find itself in. In that regard, US must need to forge close alliance with Iran to police the state and stop it from falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.

  • Posted by Womens Toms Cordones Shoes

    The Syrian state news agency SANA said “terrorists” had fired a rocket “containing chemical materials” into the area around the village of Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo. The regime regularly uses the term terrorists to refer to rebels fighting to overthrow authoritarian President Bashar Assad.

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