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The Diplomatic Option

By Raul P. Quintana

Over the weekend, some have compared the recent diplomatic efforts on Syria to the efforts that failed in the months preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And there are some similarities between the language of this weekend’s agreement to destroy Syrian weapons stockpiles and UN Resolution 1441, which authorized UN weapons inspectors to enter Saddam’s Iraq in search of WMDs.

Despite the intentions of the current administration, lessons learned from the experiences of the former suggest that recent diplomatic efforts, if unsuccessful, might actually increase the chances of military engagement, including the possibility of American boots on the ground.

Of course, the circumstances surrounding the Syria and Iraq crises are not identical. The Bush administration advocated for regime change while the Obama administration has only advocated punitive measures to reinforce an international norm. At the same time, the Obama administration has made a significant effort to assure an American public overwhelmingly opposed to military action that U.S. troops would not enter Syria.

Even with these assurances, there is only one potential difference between the two situations that could completely prevent further U.S. engagement in the present case—the success of diplomacy.

But what are the chances that this weekend’s agreement will prove successful?

Consider its intentions. The agreement would bring chemical weapons under international control through the transfer and destruction of weapon stockpiles. It is a noble goal, and the negotiators for both Russia and the United States deserve praise for their efforts. However, it is still an extremely difficult task.

In general, it takes significant time and effort to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles. More than twenty years after the passage of the Chemical Weapons Convention, only Albania, India, and South Korea have completely eliminated their stockpiles. The United States has so far eliminated 90 percent of its stockpiles. Russia has eliminated 57 percent.

All of these efforts have taken place in relatively stable countries with strong government institutions exercising complete control of their stockpiles. Syria meets none of these conditions. As such, the logistics of both securing and transporting these armaments will be extremely complicated.

First of all, Syria does not possess the sufficient facilities for the destruction of these weapons. Although inspectors will have the technical knowledge to destroy some of the facilities on site, other weapons may have to be transported out of the country.

The transport of these weapons will have to occur amid a protracted civil war defined by humanitarian disaster and the previous use of chemical weapons. It will require significant resources to ensure that those weapons are secure. At worst, inadequate protection could lead to the capture and further use of those weapons.

Second of all, it is extremely hard to verify the extent of Assad’s arsenal. The agreement states that Assad has roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents, a number he has to verify by next Friday. All the same, it will be extremely difficult to independently find, verify, and contain the exact amount. Given the insecurity on the ground, it is relatively easy for a small part of the stockpile to evade, intentionally or otherwise, the attention of the inspectors.

This is not to say that diplomatic efforts are futile or impossible, but rather to demonstrate their inherent difficulty and the extensive resources that those efforts will require. This is the primary concern. If any aspect fails or requires more resources, the United States will be pressured into further commitment to the process.

That commitment may include financial assistance. It may include missile strikes. At worst, it may include the deployment of American soldiers in order to secure the transportation lines for these weapons or to locate and isolate various weapons caches.

President Obama claimed in the acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize that peace inherently depends on the credible threat to use force. He has made the same claim this past week when arguing that the current agreement would not have occurred without his threat of punitive missile strikes.

This weekend, diplomacy won. Strikes were removed from the table. The United States and Russia negotiated an agreement that has the support of the international community and the tentative acceptance of the Assad regime. This is a significant diplomatic success.

Yet, if diplomacy eventually fails, then the administration may have to reinstate its threat to use force. At that point, the threat to use force may require far more than missile strikes. And if the United States wants to retain the credibility of its deterrent, it may just have to act.

Raul P. Quintana ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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