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Good news from Syria (really): Chemical weapons being dismantled on schedule

Members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons participate in a training exercise. (Christof  Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S.- and Russia-brokered deal to have Syria surrender its chemical weapons is proceeding on schedule, United Nations inspectors tell the Wall Street Journal, despite widespread predictions that Syria's civil war would make the effort impossible. The U.N. team had set an ambitious goal of disabling all chemical weapons production equipment by Nov. 1 and said it's on track to finish it in time.

The effort to destroy Syria's chemical weapons is still in its early stages and could slow or fail outright, particularly if the violence in Syria harms one of the U.N. team members. But these first few weeks are a promising sign, an indication that this mission may actually be achievable. But it won't save Syria.

The deal came in September, when Secretary of State John Kerry suggested off-the-cuff that the U.S. might roll back its plan to launch punitive airstrikes against Syria for its used of chemical weapons against civilians if the country agreed to surrender its stockpile. Russia seized on the comment, as did Syria, which led to a United Nations Security Council resolution for the destruction of Syria's stockpile. Many in the U.S. concluded that President Obama had been outfoxed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that the plan was unachievable and would quickly fall apart.

Those critics may turn out to be right, but so far Syria appears to be cooperating with the U.N. inspectors, who in turn seem undeterred by the war around them. A representative for the U.N. disposal team said that several improvised explosive devices and mortar rounds had gone off near the team, conceding, "Naturally this is a matter of concern for us, but the team remains determined and the morale is very high." The U.N. agency charged with removing the weapons has operated in conflict zones before; last week, it won the Nobel Peace Prize for its years of work dismantling chemical weapons around the globe.

Kerry praised Syria for its cooperation with the U.N. team this month, saying, "We're very pleased with the pace of what has happened with respect to chemical weapons in a record amount of time." That's obviously a political faux pas, given the extent and horror of the Assad regime's abuses since the war began. But on the merits it was true: Syria has been pretty good about cooperating. What was awkward was the tacit admission that this deal leaves the Assad regime intact, and may in some ways help it.

Complying with the inspectors may well be in Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's interest, which is also a good explanation for why it's succeeding. Sarin gas will not win or lose him the war; military support from Iran and diplomatic cover from Russia are far more important. So is keeping out the United States. Working with the U.N. inspectors accomplishes all of this for Assad, even if it means he has to give up his chemical weapons.

In this sense, yes, the deal probably helps Assad stay in power. But it also makes it far less likely, and perhaps someday soon makes it impossible, for him to use chemical weapons against his own people. That's good for Syrians, although ending the war would be better. More to the point of both the deal and of the initial U.S. plan to strike Syria, it helps uphold the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. That, and not ending the war, was Obama's clearly stated mission all along. That's not a mission that does a whole lot to help Syrians, or much of anything to resolve Syria's civil war, but it does at least appear to be so far achievable. And that's something.