Syria’s Compliance: A Litmus Test

Originally posted at the Penn Political Review

Last week, Bashar Al-Assad made a major decision in allowing international inspectors to inspect and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The reaction of the international community to Assad’s compliance will play an important role in determining future international behavior.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons

This is particularly significant in light of the 2011 intervention in Libya and the ongoing negotiations with Iran. For many in the international community, the Western-led intervention in Libya underlined the value of deterrent might.

Back in 2003, Libyan Muammar Gaddafi took a huge risk in embracing the international disarmament regime and shutting down Libya’s nuclear weapons program.

On Gaddafi’s part, this was a gamble. Despite Libya’s poor track record on human rights, (characterized by Human Rights Watch as “appalling”), Gaddafi hoped to move Libya from its status as a rogue state beyond the confines of the normalized international community and into the mainstream. However, the cost of joining the ‘international club’ was discarding the dangerous weapons programs that had ensured Libya’s survival as a rogue regime. In other words, Libya traded away its deterrent capacity and placed its trust with the international community.

In this regard, the 2011 NATO airstrikes constituted a betrayal of Gaddafi’s good faith. The general consensus was that NATO would not have been willing to risk intervention in Libya had they faced the retaliatory threat of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, other rogue states with deterrent weapons programs learned a very clear lesson: don’t trust the international community.

In particular, Iran interpreted the Libyan air strikes as further evidence that regime security was only possible through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Therefore, Libya provided even more incentive for Iran’s nuclear proliferation efforts. Furthermore, the Western powers also lost a great deal of credibility as partners committed to the security of cooperative states.

In this context, those on the fringes of the international community are carefully watching Bashar Al-Assad’s gamble. Assad’s decision, albeit once backed in a corner, provides a critical opportunity for the Western powers to reestablish their credibility as partners primarily interested in international peace and stability.

From an American perspective, one can be sure that Iran is carefully assessing current U.S. behavior towards Syria when establishing its position in the ongoing U.S.-Iranian negotiations. In this light, Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that Assad’s compliance is “a credit to the Assad regime, frankly. It’s a good beginning and we welcome a good beginning,” offers a promising sign, both in terms of an eventual Syrian settlement and in regards to long term peace prospects with Iran.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State on Flickr.

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About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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