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Opinion

Why Obama, UN can't fully trust Assad on chemical weapons in Syria

Bashar al-Assad's recent track record shows it is likely the regime will not live up to agreements on Syria's chemical weapons with the UN, Russia, and the US unless there are repercussions for stonewalling. For Obama, that means keeping the threat of military force alive.

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The next opportunity for Assad to show his sincerity was in February and March of 2012, when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan – appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to serve as the UN-Arab League mediator on Syria – proposed a six-point plan that would establish a ceasefire and commit Assad to allow peaceful protests. Like the Arab League’s efforts almost two months earlier, Mr. Annan’s efforts proved to be a waste of time.

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After a few days of relative quiet, the killings and Syrian Army operations continued at a pace that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights predicted resulted in the deaths of an additional 5,000 civilians. Given the UN Security Council’s lack of an enforcement mechanism for the ceasefire plan, nothing else should have been expected from the Assad regime.

But it was perhaps the October 2012 Eid al-Adha ceasefire put into place by UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi that fully revealed how untrustworthy the Assad regime was. Almost as soon as the short-term ceasefire during the Muslim holiday was announced, violations by forces loyal to the Assad regime were recorded in all areas of the country. Regime jets targeted rebel-held neighborhoods and the opposition responded with car bombings on government buildings.

In fact, on the last day of the supposed ceasefire, the Syrian air force conducted 60 air strikes, with activists recording at least 500 deaths during the Eid holiday.

In all of these cases, the Syrian government actively signaled its willingness to abide by the respective accords, only to purposely violate them over the following days. And without the threat of penalty hanging over his head, Assad was comfortable enough to do so, realizing that the Security Council would not retaliate with sanctions or force.

It is encouraging that Assad seems willing to uphold the agreement on chemical weapons thus far. And the fact that the US and Russia were able to come to an agreement on an issue pertaining to the Syrian civil war indicates that there is a common objective to rid the Middle East of a terrible weapon of mass destruction.

Yet unless the UN Security Council or the US itself is willing to enforce the Kerry-Lavrov deal with accountability and the threat of repercussions if and when Syria drags its heels or fails to fully uphold its obligations, the chances that Assad will act like a responsible statesman are low.

The White House appears to understand that military action is still needed as an option to keep the disarmament process going. The fact that the Assad regime is fulfilling its end of the bargain is an encouraging step forward. Yet with Assad in a fight for his very survival, the United States and its partners in the international community must have a back-up plan in the event that this early breakthrough begins to close.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East researcher for Wikistrat, Inc., and an independent analyst.

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