At last, the Americans and the Russians have seemingly struck a deal. It only took a flurry of diplomatic activity, the world’s most scrutinized op-ed, and three weeks of Obama-bashing, but the world has finally decided that Assad must give up all of his chemical weapons…or else. The very man who released chemical weapons upon thousands of his people and who anxiously prepared for U.S. military strikes will, indeed, not receive those strikes. Instead, he faces a Security Council Resolution. And those have always solved global issues, right?
Undoubtedly, the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons is extremely significant. Buttressing the international norm of chemical weapons control and removing them from a warzone—especially one in which Hezbollah and other militants are so prevalent (more on that later)—is surely a victory for the U.N., the U.S, and its allies. Despite the immense challenges of undertaking such a task, focusing on an effort to remove Assad’s chemical weapons will surely make the world a safer place.
Or will it?
Over the past few weeks, the world has seen a lot of Bashar Assad. Whether it has been on CBS, Fox, Chinese state television, or Venezuelan media outlets, his quotes fill daily papers and his face flashes on the nightly news. In order to discourage a U.S. military strike, encourage an international treaty and save his government, Assad has launched an international media blitz in order to take his message to the world.
Meanwhile, he has positioned himself as the gatekeeper for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. United Nations forces and other international players must now cooperate with Assad so the U.N. can do its duty. In this sense, Assad is now recognized as the focal point of Syrian international affairs—as any national leader should be. His participation in these agreements has made him indispensable to international observers. Under him, Syria is slated to join the Chemical Weapons Convention—a serious international treaty. In other words, the international community is now beholden to Assad as the President of Syria.
Assad must be smiling. Making international media appearances and signing international treaties helps a leader in one very crucial way: it enhances that leader’s legitimacy. Prior to the whirlwind surrounding the Congressional vote on an American military campaign in Syria and the U.N. debate about Syria’s chemical weapons, Assad maintained a relatively low profile both at home and abroad. Relying more upon the strength of his military forces rather than his acumen as a national figure and international negotiator, Assad did little to remind the world that he was in fact the President of Syria. Besieged by a host of militias, and stripped of his governance over much of Syria, Assad’s legitimacy suffered a major toll. Discussions about Syria largely revolved around which opposition groups fight Assad, not which opposition groups Assad must fight.
This, however, has all changed. Over the past weeks, President Assad has successfully refashioned himself. He is no longer some Syrian leader in hiding. Rather, he has reasserted himself as a spokesman for the Syrian state. At least in the eyes of international forces, he must be taken seriously as the legitimate Syrian ruler.
Why does this matter? Well, beyond the obvious paradox of recognizing Assad as the leader of a highly divided territory and of a population of which he has killed thousands, it is imperative to remember that Assad stands in the way of the world’s largest potential security threat.
Much has been written about the growing presence of Islamic extremists in opposition militias. Not only do many of these groups seek to destabilize the region, but they also present a potentially direct security threat to the U.S. and its allies (à la Benghazi). Al-Qaeda-linked groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have been able to establish local governments across Syria, and implement Sharia law. They too have been involved in supporting the raging violence in Iraq. In August, a growing regional terrorist threat forced the shutdown of Western embassies across the region. As chaos spreads in Syria, these groups have been able to establish a foothold in Syria and beyond that will be difficult to dislodge. And as the chaos continues to spread, the power of these groups will continue to grow in suit.
In the end, Syria will only be able to move on once Assad is gone. Most opposition fighters, extremist or moderate, refuse to consider a future in which Assad rules any part of Syria. Simply put: as long as Assad survives, war will persist. And as long as war persists, extremism will spread.
This all begs the question: why are we now relying upon Assad’s survival for the sake of successfully removing Syria’s chemical weapons? The focus of the international community should not be on removing chemical weapons from Syria and enhancing Assad’s legitimacy. The focus should rather be on removing Assad from Syria—diplomatically or militarily. Not only does the current obsession with Syria’s chemical weapons further entrench its embattled President and discourage efforts to support forces that fight for his demise, but it also indirectly empowers the very forces that pose the real long-term threat to international security: Islamic extremists.
Surely, if Assad were removed the battle would not end. Opposition fighters could take up arms against each other, or against the Syrian people. Extremists could come to power, and the region could burst into flames. Undoubtedly, the world fears the post- Assad Middle East. Yet the world will only be able to fight the threats of that world once Syria is post-Assad. The longer we wait, the greater they become.
So while recent international developments suggest a promising future with regards to the destruction of global chemical weapons stockpiles, they ignore the larger, more dangerous threat. The efforts surrounding U.N. chemical weapons conventions cloud the growing reality of extremists’ networks. Assad’s presidency and global security are now mutually exclusive. In the long run, legitimizing Assad through U.N. resolutions and primetime media interviews sacrifices the latter for the former. But more importantly, avoiding this reality will only make it all the more real when Assad is finally gone. And only then we will face the brewing chaos he will leave behind.