OPINION

Accelerating the spread of chemical weapons in Syria

The agreement between the US and Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014 is a victory for diplomacy and Barack Obama at the expense of war-hungry circles in the West. The US president’s caution and moderation is viewed by these circles as hesitation and indecision, but the result is that Obama, with Moscow’s assistance, prevented the US from engaging in an uncertain military venture. What does this new security agreement mean for Syria and the region?

In addition to the fact that the spread of the Syrian civil war into neighboring countries was averted and that the West has given a hint of its intentions to stabilize Syria in the interim, further weakening President Bashar al-Assad’s power is the biggest gain of this agreement for the West. This owes to the fact that it is difficult to target a state that has chemical weapons with conventional weapons. The question in this agreement is whether it will be possible to remove all of Assad’s chemical weapons and, whether, in this process, they will fall into the wrong hands.

Now, by achieving the postponement of an American attack, the Assad government is gaining time and adapting its tactics to the new circumstances. If the information about Assad transferring part of the chemical weapons arsenal to Iraq, Lebanon and different parts of Syria is valid, then it is plausible that he wants to hide a significant part of Syria’s arsenal from the watchful eye of the West and ahead of the expected delivery next summer. Hence Assad is seeking to strengthen the Shiite axis in the region.

This tactic, however, complicates things, as it speeds up the spread of chemical weapons and makes it almost impossible to implement the newly signed agreement. Furthermore, because of the Syrian civil war’s uncertain battle front, there is a big risk that the chemical weapons will fall into the hands of the extremist elements of the Syrian opposition. Thus far, chemicals have been used on both sides in the Syrian civil war. So is the recent agreement on Syria a success in terms of security?

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* Dr Evangelos Venetis is head of the Middle East Research Project at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).