The Russian Proposal: Opportunity or Trap?

Published on NOW: September 10, 2013

This article published yesterday in NOW elaborates on a recent Facebook status, but it is obviously dated now after the Obama’s speech. Things are moving quickly and writing on current affairs is not easy. Still, the argument is the same: if President Obama truly believes in what he is peddling – that Assad needs to be punished, and eventually ousted – then, he needs to find a way to retrieve the initiative and launch his heralded limited strikes which, knowing the fragility of the Assad regime, will have a major impact on the conflict.

It might have been a misstatement or a gaffe on part of American Secretary of State John Kerry, but the Russians pounced on it and turned it into a full-fledged proposal to the Assad regime, who accepted it. Now, depending on how President Obama handles it, this unexpected development could turn either into a great opportunity to end the bloody conflict in Syria, or a trap that will prolong it.

Both scenarios start with President Obama accepting the proposal. It is what happens next that will make all the difference.

Should the President accept the proposal and take the lead in providing a plan and a timetable for implementation, and should this plan link the issue of chemical weapons to the ongoing conflict, then, we might indeed have an opportunity to end the conflict.

This would work if the plan included the following points:

1. The Administration would stop seeking Congressional approval for strikes against the Assad regime in exchange for Assad’s putting the entire stockpile of chemical weapons in his possession under international custody.

2. Since the Administration cannot endorse sending inspectors to an active war zone, it should insist on having the Assad regime unilaterally declare a ceasefire and stop all ground hostilities. Its troops should return to barracks, its militias should cease operations, and the aerial bombing campaigns against rebel strongholds should immediately stop.

3. Inspectors will then be sent to Syria where they should be given complete access to all sites they deem relevant.

4. Preparation for a new peace conference in Geneva, the so-called Geneva II, should proceed in parallel to inspection and dismantling activities on the ground.

5. Moreover, the invitation to the conference in Geneva must include a stipulation for the immediate departure of Assad and his top cronies as a necessary precondition. Albeit, some in the administration might push for making this particular demand more a result than a precondition for participation.

6. President Obama will stipulate that any stalling or infringement by the Assad regime would result in limited punitive strikes without returning to Congress under the usual executive privilege.

7. Finally, Assad should be given 48 hours to accept the plan or face the consequences under the executive privilege.

Following this plan will allow President Obama to extricate himself from his current embarrassing face-off with Congress, while putting something on the table that can potentially end the conflict, and with it the suffering of millions of Syrians. Naturally, there will be pushback from Russia, not to mention the Assad regime, since the survival of the regime continues to be the ultimate gambit of both sides. But, in this scenario, the President will now have retrieved the initiative and can go ahead with the planned strikes without seeming to challenge the international community.

But the whole thing could easily turn into a new major embarrassment to the administration should it allow Russia and the Assad regime to dictate the terms of the plan, and put an implementation schedule that will give Assad more time to pound the rebels, even while appearing to be cooperating, just as he did in previous instances when UN and Arab League monitors were on the ground.

Indeed, the possibility that this new development could be used to seal President Obama’s defeat in Congress is great. Everything depends on how fast the President act on this development, and on how committed he is to achieving his ultimate policy goal in Syria, which he announced back in the summer of 2011: the ouster of Assad.

Once again, the ball is back in President Obama’s court. Let’s see how he plays it this time around. The world is watching, and the fate of millions is at stake.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and the president of the Tharwa Foundation. He currently divides his time between Washington, D.C. and Turkey where he works with local Syrian activists on developing long-term peace-building and democracy-promotion programs. 

Comment on Facebook:

So the Russians have put on the table a plan whose implementation requires thousands of peacekeepers and experts working together over a period of several years to dismantle Assad’s chemical supplies and production capabilities. In practice, this requires cessation of all hostilities by all parties, in other words, an end to the civil war. End the civil war and the Russian plan can work. But how do we end the civil war? Well, how about a limited strike against Assad’s military and security establishment to convince him to cease hostilities? There you go, we’re back where we started: in order to make Russia’s plan work we need to strike Assad, and in order to strike Assad, we need an American President who is willing to do it and does not go into convulsions each time we get to this point. Because no matter how long you postpone the decision, Mr. Obama, and how hard you try to find alternatives, there is no substitute for striking Assad, except reconciling yourself to being a tacit endorser of genocide.