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Could Assad Regime Emerge Stronger From Chemical-Weapons Deal?

  • Charles Recknagel

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaking during a September 23 interview in Damascus.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaking during a September 23 interview in Damascus.

Western powers and Moscow have agreed the best way to prevent chemical weapons from being used again in Syria is to destroy Damascus's stockpiles of nerve and blister agents.

But could the effort actually hand the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a longer lease on life by making Damascus part of the yearlong disarmament process?

The question comes up because the disarmament deal -- which world powers, gathered for the UN General Assembly in New York, are now trying to turn into a UN resolution -- depends upon the Syrian military remaining intact long enough to hand over all its chemical weapons to international arms inspectors.

And so long as the Syrian military remains intact, there is little chance Syrian rebels would be able to topple the Assad regime that controls it.

"The regime has been given a curious stigma," says Paul Shulte, a proliferation and disarmament expert with the Carnegie Endowment and King's College, London. "It is now judged guilty of a major war crime. On the other hand, it's become somewhat indispensable."

'Clawing' His Way Back?

Heiko Wimmin, a Syria expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, also sees Assad emerging stronger from the deal. "He has reestablished himself as an actor that people don't want to do business with but have to do business with to get the results they want, and clawed his way back to some respectability," Wimmin says. "Which is odd, to say the least, if you look at where it comes from."

The conundrum raises a host of questions. How vigorously can Western and Arab states that now support the rebels with funds or arms do so without jeopardizing the need for enough stability in Syria to disarm Damascus of chemical weapons?

And how much can Western powers -- which have sought to ostracize the Assad regime -- work with it through the UN Security Council without actually strengthening the regime's position on the world stage as Syria's legitimate government?

READ MORE: Syria's Chemical Disarmament Deadline Is Fastest Ever Tried

At the moment, it is too early to know the answers. But the questions are almost certain to recur repeatedly in the months ahead once chemical-weapons experts begin their work.

The chemical-weapons teams will be working in the midst of a conflict where they will likely need to be protected by a UN peacekeeping force as they collect and destroy a stockpile of highly lethal weapons which, by most estimates, totals some 1,000 tons.

But even a peacekeeping force will not be enough to guarantee the security of their work if the cooperation of Damascus, and likely key rebel groups as well, cannot be counted upon. Under the U.S.-Russian agreement reached in Geneva earlier this month, the weapons teams are to complete their work by the very tight deadline of mid-2014.

Signs Of Vulnerability

Still, if some analysts see the chemical weapons deal as strengthening Assad's immediate diplomatic position, others say it may yet open the way for a negotiated solution to the larger Syrian conflict.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, says that the Assad regime's instant acceptance of the Washington-Moscow deal as a way to avoid U.S.-led punitive air strikes underlined the regime's vulnerability in a public way.

"For years and years, the Syrian regime bragged that it was a rejectionist and steadfast state that is opposing American and 'Zionist' plans in the region," Khashan says. "But, actually, all the United States needed to get Assad to back off was to send a few ships to the eastern Mediterranean."

If so, that message would not have been lost on others within the Syrian government. Any blow that weakens the unity of the regime improves the chances of an eventual negotiated deal where Assad steps down and a more acceptable leader emerges who still keeps the military and country intact.

At the same time, the fact that Moscow and Washington were able to agree on a framework deal raises hopes they also may be able to eventually agree on how to pressure all sides in the Syrian conflict to find a peaceful solution.

A sign of whether that can ever happen will come from how much success, or trouble, they have in agreeing upon the terms of a UN Security Council resolution to start disarming Syria of chemical weapons. No deadline has been set for passing the resolution, but both Washington and Moscow have underlined the need for doing so urgently.