Roughly three months ago, Syria agreed to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile, if only to stave off the threat of U.S. air strikes.
That process has gone surprisingly well, despite the difficulties inherent in a war zone. Of course, perhaps the most hazardous portion of the work of the international inspectors — the removal of the chemical munitions from Syria and their destruction outside the country — remains ahead.
Simply transporting the chemicals to a Syrian port in the middle of a civil war is fraught with risk. And once that’s accomplished, then what? Such nations as Norway and Albania have declined to accept and destroy the chemicals. The current plan has the United States assuming the task at sea.
Still, the progress made by the international inspectors is stellar compared to all other aspects of the Syrian tragedy. The Assad regime, brutal and repulsive as it is, not only has significant support from Russia, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah. It is also grudgingly seen by the West as the lesser of two evils compared to the al-Qaida linked groups taking an ever more prominent role in the uprising.
This is the souring of the Arab Spring, replicating the disillusionment of Egypt: The main opposition to brutal regimes has generally taken a militantly religious form, not a Westernized humanist one. The fighting in Syria is not merely regime vs. rebels; it’s regime vs. militants vs. modernists, and the modernists — the Western preference — appear to be the weakest of the three.
The specter of an Islamist state wedged between Israel and Iraq cannot sit well with any U.S. administration, and that doubtless has played into President Obama’s reluctance to intervene more boldly in Syria. So too has a growing new isolationism among the American public, which has been worn down by a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and is dubious of any value in intervening elsewhere in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian disaster is at the very least brewing in Syria. More than a quarter million civilians are trapped in states of siege from government forces, and some 9 million are in need of assistance. Starvation looms for many, if indeed it is not already occurring.
Under such gruesome circumstances, eliminating chemical weapons there, even if achieved, will be something of a hollow triumph.