Exit option

A Russian proposal that envisages the international community taking control of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles has opened up space for a diplomatic approach to the Syrian crisis.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has agreed to the plan. Importantly, the US, which was threatening to launch military strikes on Syria, has extended it a qualified endorsement. The roots of what is now being referred to as the ‘Russian plan’ can be traced to an off-the-cuff remark made by US secretary of state John Kerry, one of president Barack Obama’s most hawkish advisers on Syria. With key players in the crisis on board, it does seem that the world has stepped back from the brink. Another US-led attack on a country which was bound to escalate the civil war there has been staved off. It is evident that the Obama administration was looking for an exit option. Having articulated bellicose rhetoric and promising ‘limited action’ against Syria, it was in a quandary. Military strikes on Syria were not popular back home. Opinion polls indicated that around 60 per cent of Americans surveyed were opposed to war.

All eyes will turn now to Syria. After decades of denying it possessed chemical weapons, it has come clean and admitted to holding an arsenal. It will need to take credible, next steps now. It will have to reveal exactly what it possesses and how much, and where these are stored. UN inspectors will have to verify this. The process will not be easy and can be expected to be clouded by allegations and counter-allegations. The UN inspectors must act fairly and not allow themselves to be influenced by the agendas of various powers. There are doubts whether they will be able to do their job in a country that is convulsed in civil war. Will the government and various opposition militias hold their fire to enable them to work? This will require the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc to pressure their proxies in Syria to halt the fighting.

The plan by itself will not end Syria’s civil war. It only prevents or at best puts on pause US-led military strikes on the country. However, if the space for a co-operative approach that it has opened up is taken to its logical conclusion, it could yield peace. But that would require the international powers to first halt their arms supply to the conflict parties and goad them to silence their guns.

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