A deal with Russia on chemical weapons may be a “win” for President Obama but only in the narrowest sense. He managed to avoid a war he desperately did not want. But with the near-obsessive focus on chemical-weapons use, the core issues have been pushed to the side. These were always more or less the same — a regime bent on killing and terrorizing its own people and a brutal civil war spilling over into the rest of the region, fanning sectarian strife and destabilizing Syria’s neighbors.
For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than “punished” as originally planned. He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return. Obscured in the debate of the past few weeks is that chemical weapons were never central to the Syrian regime’s military strategy. It doesn’tneed to use chemical weapons. In other words, even if the regime does comply with inspections (which could drag on for months if not years), it will have little import for the broader civil war, which Assad remains intent on winning.
If anything, Assad finds himself in a stronger position. Now, he can get away with nearly anything — as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons, which, unlike the chemical kind, are responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 deaths so far in the civil war. Let’s say Assad intensifies the bombardment of villages and cities using aircraft and artillery. What if there are more summary executions, more indiscriminate slaughter? What we have already seen is terrible, of course, but it is not the worst Assad can do with conventional weapons.