October 20, 2013

TWO MONTHS AFTER a horrifying sarin gas attack propelled Syria to the center of Washington’s attention, the episode appears to have been forgotten. International inspectors say their implementation of a plan to eliminate the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal, which ended up being President Obama’s response to the crime, is proceeding relatively smoothly. In Congress, the foreign policy debate has moved on to Iran. Crisis over? Mr. Obama seems to think so — and so does Bashar al-Assad.

In an interview published last week by the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, the sanguinary Syrian dictator sounded positively cheerful about his situation. He doesn’t even “regret” losing the chemical weapons arsenal, al-Akhbar reported. “He regards them as deterrent weapons that are now obsolete.” As Mr. Assad explained it, the stocks of sarin and other gases were meant as a check on Israel, but Israel has developed effective countermeasures and Syria’s ballistic missiles are now a stronger threat to the Jewish state.

True, he had hoped to use his chemical weapons stocks — which hadn’t grown since 1997 — as a bargaining chip to induce Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, Mr. Assad said. But now the arsenal has been traded for a much more tangible benefit: “to remove the threat of aggression” by the United States. That has allowed the regime to go back to waging a merciless war against civilians. In recent weeks Syrian planes have resumed bombing in urban areas, while ground forces have come up with a new way to eliminate resistance in the Damascus suburbs that were the target of the Aug. 21 gas attack: They are blocking food supplies with the aim of starving their residents.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry says he’s convening a peace conference late next month in Geneva. He says the outcome must be a transitional government that excludes the Assad clique and is agreed to by both sides. But Mr. Assad isn’t concerned. Geneva, the dictator said, “may take place just to please Russia,” which induced the Obama administration to accept the initiative. But he doubts it. “The West’s problem is that the camp it supports in the negotiations is divided and has no control on the ground.” If there is a conference, the regime will insist that the president remain in office until his term is completed midway through the next year and that he has the right to “reelection.” There’s no indication that Russia objects to this.

Mr. Assad’s latest statements might be dismissed as so much bluster. But they are entirely plausible. The regime did manage to trade an arsenal that had outlived its original purpose for the cancellation of a U.S. military onslaught that might have tipped the balance in the civil war. That deal prompted further divisions in the U.S.-backed opposition and triggered a number of rebel groups to switch allegiance to an Islamist front. The Geneva meeting is looking doubtful, in part because U.S. diplomats are unable to explain how it could lead to Mr. Assad’s departure. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s Mr. Assad rather than Mr. Obama who wants to talk about this. For the United States, it’s a bleak and shameful picture.