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A potential turning point for Syria

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shows the way to his Syrian counterpart Walid Moualem during a meeting in Moscow September 9, 20
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shows the way to his Syrian counterpart Walid Moualem during a meeting in Moscow September 9, 20

By Mona Yacoubian

In the dizzying debate over U.S. military intervention in Syria, one key point of consensus stands out: Both the Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria's conflict must come through a negotiated settlement. Key international actors share the same conclusion.

But how do we get there? Russia's recent proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control could open a viable path to a long-sought diplomatic solution.

This initiative is a long shot. Yet, its potential payoff as a diplomatic breakthrough demands it be taken seriously. Not only would Syrian civilians be spared any unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention, but the Russian proposal's successful implementation could be a real turning point.

The removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal would be a significant plus for the region and beyond. Moreover, using legal channels to redress the wanton use of chemical weapons against civilians would enhance global security and begin to restore the international norms egregiously violated in the August 21 attack. By relying on U.N. channels, the destruction of chemical weapons would also help restore confidence in the U.N., which has been essentially ineffective on Syria.

The Russian proposal could also move us toward a negotiated settlement. Washington could enlist Moscow's cooperation for a "Geneva II" conference, bringing key protagonists in Syria's conflict around the negotiating table. Washington and Moscow should set a specific conference date and use their influence to get everyone to the negotiating table.

Moscow and Tehran could press the Assad regime to participate in transition talks that lead to the creation of a "transitional executive body" — as envisioned by the June 2012 Geneva agreement.

Both Russia and Iran — Syria's two key allies — may be shifting their support away from the regime in the wake of last month's chemical weapons attack. Russia's call for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and Iran's public disapproval of their use suggest increasing concern over the Assad regime's behavior.

Of course, the United States and its allies would have to convince the opposition to take part as well — a daunting task given the Syrian opposition's enduring divisions. In addition, the United States would need to agree to Iran's participation in the talks. But engaging Iran in multilateral talks on Syria would not only enhance the prospects of success, it could serve as an entrée to more serious discussion of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Despite these enticing possibilities, Moscow's plan still warrants significant skepticism. Experts note that it could be virtually impossible to locate all of Syria's chemical weapons sites, or that the undertaking would require months if not years. Still, intelligence agencies around the world have collected significant intelligence on Syria's chemical weapons capabilities, and these reports — particularly if bolstered by Russian cooperation — could facilitate inspections.

Nonetheless, major uncertainties exist over the proposal's contours and prospects for Syria's full compliance. Has President Bashar al-Assad signed off on the deal? How can the international community confirm that the Syrians have disclosed the total amount and locations of their chemical weapons stockpile? Who can assure the safety of U.N. inspectors as they visit various sites, and how can the weapons' safe transport be assured amid Syria's violent chaos? How long will this process take?

All reasonable questions — with no easy answers. The United States, France and Britain must thoroughly vet the Russian proposal and seek to bolster it through a U.N. Security Council resolution that holds Syria responsible for its complete implementation or face serious repercussions.

After probing this Russian-sponsored deal, Washington and its allies might deem it an insincere delaying tactic. Russia is already raising objections about whether the call for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons could be backed by the use of force. Should the proposal collapse, however, Washington will be in a stronger position to rally broad international support to take decisive action on Syria.

Russia is also now on the record calling for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile. China and Iran have voiced their support. Should Syria or its allies waver here, the United States would be in stronger position for military intervention — having truly exhausted all diplomatic efforts.

(Mona Yacoubian is a senior adviser on the Middle East at the Stimson Center.)

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