Don’t get your hopes up. Syria might be adopting the North Korea playbook.

September 10, 2013

A Syrian armored personnel carrier takes position in Homs. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria has signaled that it may be willing to accept a Russian proposal for President  Bashar al-Assad to give up all of Syria's chemical weapons in exchange for the United States agreeing not to launch strikes. If it goes through, it would be great news: taking a dangerous weapon off the battlefield and away from civilians, upholding the norm against chemical weapons and allowing the United States to back down from strikes. Read Ezra Klein's thoughts here on why this could be a best-case outcome.

On the other hand, it's early in this process, and there's a still-real possibility of a worst-case outcome. It's a bad one. Now that Assad knows he can always delay strikes by simply promising to give up his chemical weapons, he doesn't actually have to give them up. He just has to convince the United States that he might. Worse, he could reasonably conclude that, since pledges to give up his chemical weapons are his best deterrent against the United States, actually giving them up is the worst thing he could do. Better to hold on to them forever, lest he lose his one real point of leverage, and just keep bluffing.

If that strategy sounds familiar, it should. As North Korea-watcher Adrian Hong put it to me recently, Assad can easily "adopt the North Korea playbook" and keep his chemical weapons but pretend to be forever on the verge of disarming, all the while continuing his bad behavior. The thing that has made this strategy so successful for North Korea is that it can get away with almost anything: global weapons proliferation, sprawling gulags, shelling South Korean civilians for fun. But the world is so concerned about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear as well as chemical -- that nobody wants to upset the interminably protracted negotiations over rolling them back.

Almost two years ago, when the fighting in Syria was still mostly government troops firing at unarmed civilians, U.S. special representative to Syria Frederick Hof told a congressional committee that Syria would become "Pyongyang on the Levant." That was before anyone thought Assad would actually dip into his chemical arsenal -- or even that fighting would escalate into a full-blown civil war with 100,000 dead, 2 million refugees and 4.5 million internally displaced people.

We can probably expect Syria to try some amount of stalling and back-pedaling even if it's sincere about finding a deal; that's just how these sorts of negotiations tend to go. So there's no easy, immediate signal that will tell us if Assad is following the Pyongyang playbook. But if it's December and the world is still locked in negotiations over how to implement a deal, and if all the while Assad's forces have continued basically status quo, then that's a pretty good indication that this was all a ploy to stave off U.S. strikes.

That plan would probably work for Syria; it's possible the United States could still launch strikes, but if Obama thinks there's any real chance Assad could finally come through, he'll want to hold off. There's actually a very relevant precedent for this: Iraq in the 1990s. As the Brookings Institution's Mike Doran explained to me earlier today, Iraq promised way back in 1990 after it lost the Gulf War that it would allow the United Nations to inspect its chemical weapons sites. But Saddam Hussein cheated on inspections, and Russia blocked action at the United Nations (sound familiar?). It wasn't until after eight full years of this, in 1998, that the United States and Britain got fed up and launched some limited strikes against Iraq to punish it for cheating on inspections. That was known as Desert Fox and it's probably the closest model to Obama's proposed Syria strikes for today. Whether it worked it still debated.

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Max Fisher · September 10, 2013