While the Assad regime has agreed to destroy its chemical weapons, some experts and officials argue that he may simply be playing for time.
On Wednesday the U.S. Department of State said that the timeline announced last Saturday for Syria to provide “a comprehensive listing” of its chemical weapons within a week was not actually a hard deadline.
The timeline was announced by Secretary of State John Kerry after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, in which they forged an agreement to secure and eventually destroy Syria’s chemical stockpile.
“I don’t want to put a hard and fast deadline on it, but we are waiting,” said State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf at a press briefing Wednesday.
The extra time allows Assad’s forces to attempt to regain control over some of the territory vital to the regime, such as rebel held areas in suburbs of the capital Damascus.
Doubts Over Syrian Compliance
According to Gary Gambill, a political analyst specializing in Syria at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Assad has already achieved his immediate objective of avoiding a U.S. military strike.”
According to Gambill, Assad has “little incentive to actually honor his pledge to disarm.”
The U.S.–Russian agreement, which is yet to be voted on by the U.N. Security Council, would likely not fall under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which includes provisions for enforcement by military or nonmilitary means, such as sanctions.
Russia has been adamantly against any agreement that would include the possibility of military force in case the Assad regime would not comply with the agreement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a Fox News interview aired Wednesday that he will comply fully with the U.S.–Russian agreement to destroy the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons by mid-2014.
“We didn’t say that we are joining partially.… We joined fully,” he said, while still maintaining that terrorists were behind the deadly sarin gas strike in August that precipitated the initiative.
“All he [Assad] has to do to stay safe is avoid further large-scale chemical weapons attacks for the time being, which will make it difficult for President Obama to galvanize domestic political support for a strike a second time around,” Gambill said.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell questioned the value of the agreement on Tuesday. “I’m skeptical that this is a game plan that will lead to an outcome, and it looks more like, frankly, an effort to guarantee that Assad stays in power,” he told reporters.
Fighting for the Steering Wheel
Meanwhile, Russia, whose official line on responsibility for the attack is the same as Assad’s, insists that a U.N. Security Council resolution must not support any threat of military force from the U.S. side.
In a media conference call on Thursday that featured former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Richard Murphy, Syria expert Michael Weiss, and professor Richard Betts of Columbia University, the general consensus was that Russia most likely wants Assad to comply and at least go on in a stumbling way. He might even play for time and still keep enough chemical weapons to use if needed. Verifying the actual destruction of the chemical weapons is also very hard, the experts argued.
According to the experts Assad, Russia, and the United States are “fighting for the steering wheel” at the moment.
But Max Abrahms of Northeastern University, who is an expert on civil war and insurgency, believes that Assad’s days are numbered, regardless of whatever he might gain by using the chemical weapons agreement to stall for time.
“The opposition against him is just too strong,” Abrahms said. “It includes rebels from over 60 countries unified only in their desire to oust him.
“And few states support Assad, including within the Arab world. So, I do not think that the chemical weapons negotiations will extend his rule indefinitely.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.