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Syria's chemical weapons deal: A victory for Assad?
The embattled Syrian president is expected to hand over his chemical weapons. Rebels say that's not enough.
 
A shaky win, maybe — but still a win.
A shaky win, maybe — but still a win. (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)

When Russia and the United States agreed over the weekend on a plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons, Ali Haidar, the Middle Eastern country's national reconciliation minister, called it "a victory for Syria."

The aggressive plan calls for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reveal details about his chemical weapons stockpile within the next week. Inspections are expected to begin in November with the destruction of Assad's chemical wepons planned to start next year.

Ultimately, the aim is for Syria's chemical weapons to be destroyed or removed by the end of 2014 — an ambitious goal considering that the United States isn't expected to finish destroying its own stock of chemical weapons until 2023, long after its original goal of 2007. Not to mention that Syria continues to be plagued by a violent sectarian war that will surely make weapons inspections difficult.

So, is this really a "victory" for the Assad regime?

In the sense that Assad gains legitimacy and importance in the eyes of the international community, yes, it is, wrote Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg:

By partnering with Russia and the West on the disarmament process… Assad has made himself indispensable. A post-Assad regime wouldn't necessarily be party to this agreement, and might not even go through the motions. Syria, post-Assad, might very well be more fractured and chaotic than it is now, which is to say, even less of an environment in which United Nations weapons inspectors could safely go about their work. The U.S. now needs Assad in place for the duration. He's the guy, after all, whose lieutenants know where the chemical weapons are. [Bloomberg]

Many of the rebels who have been fighting the Syrian government since 2011 also think Assad is coming out of this a winner. Remember, even without chemical weapons, the war in Syria has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, with at least 2 million Syrians forced to leave their homes as refugees.

Gen. Salim Idriss, leader of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, said he felt "let down by the international community" for potentially letting the "murderer Bashar" off without any punishment. That sentiment was echoed by Bashir Hajji, a field commander for the rebel group Liwaa al-Tawheed, who told The New York Times that the plan provides " a new chance for Assad's gangs to continue the criminal play in Syria."

"Now, Assad can get away with nearly anything — as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons," wrote The Atlantic's Shadi Hamid, noting that "chemical weapons were never central to the Syrian regime's military strategy."

The fact that Obama is unlikely to impose any new "red lines" or take military action, wrote Hamid, means that "even if the regime does comply with inspections (which could drag on for months if not years), it will have little import for the broader civil war, which Assad remains intent on winning."

That, however, doesn't mean total victory for the Syrian regime, wrote Andrew J. Tabler in Foreign Affairs, noting that "if Assad manages to stay in power, his level of control over the country will never again be what it was before the war." He added:

Parts of the country (particularly in the northwest and along the Euphrates River) will remain under the control of the Syrian opposition — including organized terror groups — even if they have given up the immediate goal of toppling the Assad regime.

Even in those areas where Assad maintains control, his authority will be greatly diminished. He has waged all-out war against his own country, resorting to the use of Scud missiles and chemical agents against civilian populations. Those tactics may have helped him stay in power, but they will also cost him every last shred of popular legitimacy. [Foreign Affairs]

 
Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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