Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s Saturday announcement that the United States and Russia reached an agreement for the international control of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, The Daily Princetonian spoke briefly by phone to U.S. Representative Rush Holt, a former arms control expert for the State Department, to discuss his position on the viability of the agreement. Holt explained that while it was still too early to tell whether the involved parties would stick to the agreement, the possibility of a diplomatic solution was far preferable to previous arguments for U.S.-led military strikes on the war-torn country.The Daily Princetonian: Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that the United States and Russia have reached an agreement that calls for Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by mid-2014. Under this framework, international inspectors must be on the ground in Syria by November. Do you think this accord is viable?
Rush Holt: We’re certainly going in the right direction. There’s still a long way to go, and we have to see how forceful Russia is, how cooperative Assad is, how effective the international inspectors are, you know, all of that is yet to be demonstrated. But we are on a better path with respect to Syria than we have been on in this whole matter. So, you know, I think the outcome — well, there are two advantages to what the president, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are doing now. First is there’s a good chance that this could actually prevent or forestall the use of any chemical weapons further in Syria. Second, it is now truly international in a way that our unilateral threats were not. And so this has the advantage of being able to set and enforce international standards on the use, on the non-use, the abolition of chemical weapons. And so that’s very promising.
DP: You spoke to this a bit in your previous response, but it seems that the possibility of military intervention in Syria is on the back burner for now, but what kinds of obstacles or events could bring it to the forefront of policy debates again?
RH: Well, my guess is, if this falls apart, if Assad would use chemical weapons again, if he turns out to be completely uncooperative, he will be in worse shape. He will face a greater threat from the world community if he fails to meet the expectations and the promises. And I guess the point I was trying to make a moment ago, and let me restate it just to make sure that I’ve got that clear: The current agreement, or the current path that we’re on with Russia and Syria, is better than we were on before with the threatened use of force. Because the threatened use of force by the United States ... couldn’t be expected to guarantee the non-use of chemical weapons. It might punish Assad, but it could not prevent, you know, it could not result in the accounting of the chemical weapons that existed and it could not have prevented their use. Furthermore, it was not international enough to be at all effective in enforcing international standards of use. And so, the current path that we’re on is much preferable to the path we were on before. And, it also means that there’s not likely to be a war that leads to expanded military involvement and a full conflagration.
DP: Before the agreement, many had argued that the United States’ credibility in the eyes of the international community had been damaged by appearing reluctant to take early, decisive action against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons usage. Do you think that the agreement could undo some of that damage?
RH: I thought before that the United States would have been making a mistake to engage in military, to make military strikes that would be seen to be unilateral — one nation on another nation. So this is definitely better because it is more international. I mean it will involve the UN, it will involve Russia and other countries. And so I think that’s much better and I think, you know, both the role of the United States on the international stage and the reputation of the United States in the international community will be enhanced by this.
DP: What has the American Congress’s response to the agreement been? Would you say that there’s broad support in the House or the Senate for pursuing a diplomatic solution?
RH: Well, we don’t know, it’s a little hard to say what the congressional response is. This happened, you know, the announcement came over the weekend and Congress hasn’t been in session over the weekend. But, as this appeared to be taking shape, most of my Congressional colleagues were relieved. A number of people thought that the military strike was not a good idea, and those that did wanted to make sure that it would ... enforce the international standards about the use of chemical weapons. And this agreement that comes out of Geneva now, I think, is better from both of those perspectives. It avoids the military strikes and does more of, or goes farther toward accomplishing what the military strikes were supposed to accomplish. The one thing that this agreement doesn’t yet do that the strikes may have done is punish Assad. But I never thought that should have been the primary goal of the United States.
DP: Do you have any last comments or suggestions you’d like to make?
RH: Well, just one other comment, which is that a lot of the commentators have been saying that the administration backed into this, you know, that this was sort of an accidental agreement. I don’t think so, I mean we’ll learn more about this, but I think you know, over time, we’ll probably learn more about this, but I think this is the outgrowth of discussions that have been taking place in back channels and on the margins of the G20 meeting and elsewhere for quite a while. And so it’s not something that just came about in the last week. The breakthrough in the agreement came about in the last week, but I don’t want to see this called an “accidental agreement.”