The deal between the United States and Russia to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons poses many hurdles, both practical and political. But the agreement the two sides reached over the weekend amounts to the best possible way forward in resolving a crisis that offers no easy way out. The deal could bring a peaceful end to the standoff over Syria's chemical arsenal. It gives Russia and the international community a stake in dismantling Syria's chemical stockpile. And for now it spares the Obama administration from delivering on its threat to strike Syria unilaterally, which stoked a major backlash at home and abroad. The two sides need to keep to the aggressive timetable, and the United States should maintain its leverage by keeping a military option on the table.
The agreement, announced in Geneva by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, aims to achieve the far-reaching goal of doing away with Syria's chemical weapons capability. Syria would have until next week to catalog its chemical assets and disclose them to international inspectors. The arsenal would be removed or destroyed by mid 2014. Syria would accede to international conventions banning chemical weapons. And Syrian compliance would be overseen by the United Nations under Security Council protocols that authorize punitive action if Damascus falls short. If it works, the deal would be a more effective response than limited American airstrikes alone against Syria for its gassing of civilians last month in its 2½-year-old civil war.
The speedy timetable and the U.S. insistence on preserving its military options are necessary for this agreement to have any chance. Syrian President Bashar Assad needs to be forced at the outset to demonstrate good faith in turning over Syria's chemical weapons. Even with the regime's cooperation, securing dozens of weapons sites amid the ongoing civil war won't be easy. By proposing such a deal, however, Russia, as Syria's major protector, now has an ownership stake in seeing this diplomatic track succeed. In only two short days, the deal brought together a show of support from the global community that the proposed U.S. airstrikes never did. The United States, Russia and the United Nations must ensure Syria is not stalling and hold it accountable should the agreement fall apart.
The framework effectively establishes Assad as a partner, at least for the time being, which the U.S.-backed rebels fault as inconsistent policy. But the Obama administration has a greater interest in removing this stockpile than in getting further immersed in Syria's civil war. The point of airstrikes, anyway, was to make the continued use of chemical weapons too costly to the Syrian regime. This deal goes further by removing the arsenal entirely. And working with the Russians could create a window for a political settlement in Syria that does not involve a show of U.S. military might. The threat of American force got diplomacy to this point. Obama should work to remove these weapons and be prepared with a Plan B should this hope not materialize.