Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been in the world’s crosshairs lately because his regime apparently used chemical weapons on civilians outside Damascus in August. But rather than being a disaster for his government, which at one point seemed to be facing the imminent threat of U.S. invasion, could the use of chemical weapons coupled with Russia’s plan to have Assad hand them over actually play to the dictator’s strategic benefit?
At a panel on spheres of influence and changing dynamics in the Middle East, Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont made the case. “The issue of chemical weapons plays to the benefit of the Assad regime right now,” he said. “If you want to see this agreement implemented, you’ve got to deal with the Assad regime. That’s why the opposition was so adamantly opposed. It’s no accident the Assad regime accepted this with alacrity.”
Indeed, that the seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria hand over its chemical weapons to avoid conflict was seized upon by Assad’s allies in Moscow — and shortly thereafter embraced by his own government — suggests this is far from the worst-case-scenario for a man whose days appeared to be numbered as recently as this spring.
Also key to whether Syria does strike some kind of a deal with the international community is the behavior of Iran, its only other major ally besides Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Gause expects a more traditional hardline approach from recently-elected President Hassan Rowhani as a way to bridge the divide with the conservative, ultra-powerful Revolutionary Guard over a wholly separate question: that of getting the West to abandon crippling sanctions on its nuclear program. “We might see a trade-off here”, he said, “where Rowhani is allowed a free hand on nuclear issues but plays along on Syria.”