This article is co-authored with Claire Schachter, managing editor of OpenCanada.org. The piece first appeared in the Toronto Star.
We may never know whether U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intended to set in motion the creation of a diplomatic alternative to a military strike on Syria, but it doesn't matter all that much. Transferring Syria's chemical weapons to international control isn't a new idea, it just didn't get any traction when it was floated earlier, likely because the possibility of a military strike wasn't looming behind it. Regardless of how the option got on to the table, Bashar Assad has seized it with American and Russian encouragement.
Global attention has turned to the practicalities of transferring weapons from Syria to Russia. But in the rush to debate if and how the international community can get chemical weapons out of Syria and safely and efficiently into Russia, analysts are skipping over the most significant consequence of the U.S.-Russian proposal.
By following up on Kerry's suggestion, Assad's regime has bought itself time. Not just days or weeks, as many pundits have noted, but months or likely even a couple of years. Time to reassert its control over the entire country. Why? Put simply, the United States needs and wants the Assad regime to maintain control of the country long enough to track down, extricate and destroy every last piece of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.
Those who thought Washington's disgust with Assad after the chemical attacks was so intense as to render his ruling for an extended period of time an impossibility are quickly re-evaluating, and for good reason. Disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons would be a geostrategic achievement for the Obama administration; a chemically castrated Syria would be significantly less of a threat to its neighbours and the wider region.
It would also be an international coup as the West has been trying for more than 20 years to get Syria to admit to its stockpile, let in international arms inspectors and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. As pointed out by chemical weapons experts, the Syrian chemical arsenal is vast, amounting to thousands of tonnes. Intelligence reports revealed to U.S. congressional representatives suggest there may be at least 19 chemical weapons depots, including several production facilities -- some of which are underground, in densely populated urban areas, or extremely remote locations -- as well as research and development centres.
But chemically disarming Syria presents a massive and unprecedented challenge to the international community, and one that cannot be overcome without the Assad regime. Assad knows that his retaining a firm grip on power is imperative to the plan's success, and he will use this to keep his attackers from rearming against him.
The rebels do not have the capability or requisite knowledge of the locations of weapons silos and their contents to assist with an international disarmament process. The opposition's continued disunity and unreliability mean that however distasteful the United States may find the prospect of working with the Assad regime, it is the only realistic option, given the long and arduous road to disarmament that undoubtedly lies ahead.
Obama's enthusiasm for the weapons transfer, despite his initial efforts to mute it by keeping the military strike "on the table" is obvious. His administration is hardly likely to risk failure by supporting the rebels or attempting to further undermine the regime covertly or diplomatically.
The consequences of this for the Syrian opposition are stark. The moment Assad formally agreed to follow up at the UN on the transfer proposal, the window for "degrading Assad and upgrading the rebels" slammed shut. The echo will still be ringing in the ears of the rebels, the Syrian military and extremists alike.
Assad has bought himself years of effective non-interference in Syria's domestic affairs, including his ongoing quest to crush his opponents. But this does not presuppose his long-term victory -- the international community's brief romance with Muoammar Gaddafi, who turned over his chemical weapons in the mid-2000s and was then welcomed into the international community, ended swiftly when the Benghazi rebels looked like a sure bet to overthrow his regime. The fate of Assad's regime is likely to be similar, but in the meantime he's made a tactical move, trading weapons for tacit approval of his continued reign over Syria.
The United States has implicitly decided to keep the butcher of Damascus in power. It's a gamble and the stakes -- the lives of Syrians and the future of their country -- couldn't be higher. Now that Obama has shown his hand, the opposition can do little but fold, and we must wait to see if Assad is bluffing. Years from now, we may still be waiting.
President Barack Obama meets with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez at the G20 Summit in Cannes, France, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands after a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 11, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard shake hands during a bilateral meeting at Parliament House in Canberra on November 16, 2011. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff (R) during a joint press conference at Palacio do Planalto in Brasilia on March 19, 2011. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> The title of this slide initially referred to Dilma Rousseff as the prime minister of Brazil. In fact, she is the president of Brazil.</em>
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) reach out to shake hands on arrival at the Peace Palace for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and US summit in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012 following the 21st ASEAN Leaders Summit. (ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Canadas Prime Minister Stephen Harper in bilateral meeting during the G20 Summit, Tuesday, June 19, 2012, in Los Cabos, Mexico. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
U.S. President Barack Obama greets Chilean President Sebastian Pinera before a dinner at the Washington Convention Center during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2010. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands during a joint press conference in the framework of the VI Summit of the Americas at Casa de Huespedes in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 15, 2012. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama and Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla shake hands at the end of their joint press conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, Friday, May 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with French President Francois Hollande on arrival for the G8 Summit Friday, May 18, 2012 at Camp David, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks after a joint press conference following their meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama and South Korea President Park Geun-Hye shake hands at the conclusion of their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama, left, and Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, shake hands following a news conference at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, Thursday, May 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines in the Oval Office at the White House on June 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (R) shake hands with U.S. President Barack Obama (L) during their meeting in Warsaw on May 28, 2011. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets Romania's President Traian Basescu before a dinner at the US Ambassador's residence in Prague on April 8, 2010. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russias President Vladimir Putin in a bilateral meeting during the G20 Summit, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Los Cabos, Mexico. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during meetings in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, June 29, 2010. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April, 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (L) during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 2, 2009. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news conference at Thai Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
FILE - In this March 22, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama, left, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, right, shake hands following their joint new conference at the King's Palace in Amman, Jordan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their bilateral meeting in Seoul on March 25, 2012 on the eve of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron on arrival for the G8 Summit Friday, May 18, 2012 at Camp David, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) gives a book, 'The Open Veins of Latin America' of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to US President Barack Obama (L) during a multilateral meeting to begin during the Summit of the Americas at the Hyatt Regency in Port of Spain, Trinidad April 18, 2009. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Follow Bessma Momani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/b_momani