As things appear on Wednesday morning, following the announcement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Lebanon’s Al-Maydeen TV, U.S. President Barack Obama has won a big victory at no cost whatsoever in blood or treasure.
“We fully support Russia’s initiative concerning chemical weapons in Syria, and we are ready to cooperate,” FM Muallem said Tuesday night, promising: “As a part of the plan, we intend to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. We are ready to fulfill our obligations in compliance with this treaty, including through the provision of information about our chemical weapons. We will open our storage sites, and cease production. We are ready to open these facilities to Russia, other countries and the United Nations.”
He followed with this commitment: “We intend to give up chemical weapons altogether.”
Now, the cynics among us would be quick to note that verbal—or written, for that matter—commitments in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter) are not worth the C-drive space their downloaded to, and I would have endorsed those doubts, if not for a few additional factors.
First, President al-Assad’s two major supporters, Russia and Iran, are emerging as the guarantors of the deal by which Syria will turn over its chemical weapons and abandon its chemical weapons program.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told a news conference in Tehran: “The Islamic Republic of Iran favors that initiative and we find this to be within the framework of putting a halt to militarism in the region.”
And Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Syria’s chemical arms handover will work if the U.S. renounces the use of force against the Assad government: “Of course, all of this will only mean anything if the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria. You can’t really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.”
Which means that all the sides fully expect the U.S. to make good on its threat of an attack, should the Assad regime start playing games reminiscent of the games the late Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was playing with the Bush 1 and Clinton administrations over the inspection and dismantling of his WMD stash, in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
The U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet is still parked outside Assad’s door, and the same Tomahawks that are not being launched at his weapons stocks today can easily be shot a month from now, should Assad endeavor to hankipanki.
But there’s more. In his haste to rain chemical hellfire on his enemies, the energetic Assad failed to consider just how allergic his Iranian allies and benefactors are to the term “chemical warfare.”
During the Iran–Iraq war that began in 1980, right after the Islamic Revolution, Iraq was using mustard gas and other chemical agents, delivered by bombs that were dropped from airplanes. It is estimated that as many as 100 thousand Iranian soldiers were victims of chemical attacks. Official estimates do not include the civilian population in border towns, including children, who developed blood, lung and skin complications. Nerve gas agents killed about 20,000 Iranian soldiers immediately, according to official reports. Of the 80,000 survivors, some 5,000 seek medical treatment regularly and about 1,000 are still hospitalized with severe, chronic conditions.
With all their high regard for Assad as their main asset in the region and virtually their only provider of access to Hezbollah and Hamas (the latter having disengaged from Tehran for now) – the Iranians might find it difficult to stomach his penchant for chemical warfare. He’ll get no sympathy from them.
But, not to accuse the Iranians of sentimentalism, Tehran may also have taken home a valuable lesson from this week’s events – or non-events, for that matter. They’ve seen Obama sticking to his guns while all around him allies, including his own party’s lawmakers, have been moving away from the idea of an attack. The fact that the president did not give the order should not signal that he would hesitate to give it in the future – and I think the Iranians have made a note of that.
The Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei just announced on Wednesday: “We hope the new U.S. approach toward Syria is serious, and not part of its normal deception and backhanded approach, which is arbitrary and wrong.”