The best target for Assad’s chemical weapons was always Obama’s red line.
Assad is still using his chemical weapons this evening, though not to interrupt the flow of neurotransmitters among his own people but rather to asphyxiate the use of force against him in order to buy time. This is an infinitely more valuable use of them than further use against his people, at least, for the moment. And that may have been the very calculation that was made. If so, then we must be quite careful in whatever precedent we establish regarding the removal, destruction or safeguarding (which has an ominous connotation in this context) of the Assad regime’s CW, which will take time.
U.S. ships on patrol cost money, and one doubts they can linger on, in particular under our sequestered and war-weary condition, indefinitely. Time will tell whether SSV-201 Priazovye might linger on in the Levant, too. In this regard, a strong burden rests on Obama to clarify how he will keep the threat of force real, relevant and in front of Assad, and to obtain concrete agreement from his Russian counterparts regarding when and how force might still be used, should he now accede to their offer.
Ban Ki Moon has decided, as the OPCW DG has noted, that if this is to be done correctly, then Syria might have to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). That almost certainly won’t be done in Kerry’s hypothetical context, i.e., in a week. You are free to examine what must be declared by anyone contemplating becoming a party to the CWC, and encouraged to examine other requirements, such as detailed plans for the destruction of CW.
The differing views regarding whether or not we are to (a) remove CW; (b) to destroy it, in situ or at dedicated, monitored facilities; (c) safeguard it until such time as activities might be safely carried out related to (a) and (b); and (d) when and how, are, each of them, sufficiently unclear to merit much specific response, at present. Neither is the “we,” clear, Kemosabe. Removal would pose significant challenges for determining completeness/compliance–it’ll be messy, highly dangerous and only realistically undertaken by governments that could do it. And in the middle of a war, no less. And the United States has said “no boots on the ground.” Having achieved any of (a) through (c), at what point does the United States withdraw its threat to use force?
It’s worth noting, too, that in cases in which we have had the opportunity to dispose of chemical weapons with more cooperative governments, it’s taken us years, and we are still not finished—Libya comes to mind.
What seems likely is some rapid response under a loosely-constructed UNMOVIC-like authority. Then, in the longer term, Syrian membership in the CWC. Doubtless, one can already see that the man who has to make the declaration is Assad, or at least his government. So we ought to expect this fellow to be around a lot longer than would otherwise perhaps have been the case.
In any situation like this, I always ask what are the elements of this proposal, and to what extent is each capable of being verified? Verification matters, even more so in the Syrian context. As the use of CW has been the theory underlying the argument for use of SLCM strikes on Syria (at a minimum), then the verification of any proposal involving the destruction, removal or safeguarding of any precursors, weapons, production and storage facilities, and all sites and locations related thereto, is also just that much more important.
It would be our shame to let Assad make a mockery out of this process, too.