Under the draft agreement brokered by Russia with the United States, Syria is to give up all its chemical weapons stockpiles by mid-2014 and allow international inspectors into the country by November of this year. Non-compliance by Bashar al-Assad’s government or any other party would be referred to the 15-nation U.N. Security Council by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That group oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has now agreed to join.
Despite the criticism of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis, this agreement represents a significant success. Obama mobilized world attention and clearly stated that “the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere”. He further highlighted his “duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children”. The agreement marks an important step towards achieving this goal and, if successful in its implementation, could burnish Obama’s legacy.
The trouble is that Obama’s words and decisions are weighed very differently at home and abroad. Yet it was Obama’s leadership that brought a diplomatic solution back on the table. The major breakthrough on the Syrian crisis required the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks with Russia. But the deal does not mean the United States is backing down from its threat of military force. On the contrary, all the options are still on the table and the U.S. military is still well-positioned to maintain pressure on Assad. The credibility of the United States rests intact: it initially contemplated limited strikes to reinforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons established by the Geneva Protocols in 1925. Obama’s clear message that he condemned and was willing to act against anyone who used these weapons only confirmed the role of the United States as an anchor of global security.
The alternative was to arm the moderate opposition forces in Syria, in order to strengthen their ability to weaken the regime, and thereby create real conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict. This option was very risky as it came with several important questions: Who would really benefit from Assad’s ouster? And what would happen if a terrorist group engaged in fighting the regime employed chemical weapons?
Obama now has the opportunity to achieve his objectives through diplomacy, and thus engage Iran in this diplomatic effort. Iran’s ties with the Assad cannot be overlooked. This first diplomatic success could pave the way for future talks between Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on a new security framework for the region with an initial emphasis on the Iranian nuclear program. All this means that Obama may have not reduced his focus on the Middle East-North Africa region after all.
Four years ago, the decision to give Obama the Nobel Peace Prize drew mixed reactions. During his acceptance speech, he stated he did not feel he deserved the award. But while he might not have fully deserved the prize at the time, he certainly deserves it today, for he has proved to be a rare leader who would not go to war without exhausting every alternative.
Ghazi Ben Ahmed is the Director of the MENA Partnership for Democracy & Development, which is based in the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ office in Tunis, Tunisia.