The Russian-proposed plan to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control until they has offered a welcome way out of a sticky situation for many. President Obama, caught between a commitment to military intervention he does not really want, a divided Congress, and an American public strongly opposed to another Middle East war, can postpone a decision on the legitimate ground that diplomacy must be given a chance. Russia, whose support for Assad caused embarrassment internationally without providing any concrete pay-off, is now receiving some credit for suggesting a way forward that could be much more effective in neutralizing Assad’s chemical arsenal than the “unbelievable small” military strike Obama was considering. Even Assad may benefit in the end, avoiding a military strike by giving up weapons he cannot not use in the future without severe repercussions.
But the Russian proposal, even if it surmounted the considerable obstacles to success, is not necessarily a win for the Syrian population. All but a couple of thousand of the 100,000 victims of the war so far were killed by conventional weapons. The millions of refugees and internally displaced persons did not move to escape clouds of nerve gas. Unless international diplomacy makes a serious effort to also tackle the conflict between a regime determined to remain in power at all cost and a large section of the population determined to get rid of him although divided about what should come next Syrians will become the victims of the international effort to bring the country’s chemical weapons under control.
The announced reconvening of the Geneva conference is a welcome step in the directions of broadening international involvement beyond chemical weapons. Still, there is a real danger that as international actors plunge deeply into the difficult negotiations on how to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal, they will forget about the broader conflict. If that happens, Syrians will be the losers.