As US & Russia attempt to untangle the Syrian knot, the hardest part is still ahead

By J Brooks Spector 16 September 2013

At the end of August it seemed increasingly likely American-made cruise missiles and US and French warplanes could well be targeting Syrian military installations to inflict punishment for the unleashing sarin poison gas on a helpless civilian population, an act that had crossed Barack Obama’s famous (or infamous) red line. It had also crossed the 1925 Geneva Protocol on poison gas and it would have contravened the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention as well, had Syria been a party to that second treaty. But seemingly out of nowhere, apparently chance remarks by American and Russian leaders have now produced an international agreement to separate Syria from its extensive poison gas stockpiles, sans missile launches. What’s going on? J. BROOKS SPECTOR attempts an untangling of his own.

In the process of getting to this totally unexpected result, the usual chorus of America-baiters and haters, intent on finding a second “weapons of mass deception” fiasco in all this, seem to have been caught rather flatfooted about their concerns as well. And despite some serious confusion on the part of US Government officials over the past several weeks about what they really wanted or how they were going to get there, the continuing threats of some serious damage arriving to Syrian government installations via cruise missiles seems to have brought the parties to the table. Moreover, in other developments, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon accidentally admitted, over an unexpectedly live mike, that the upcoming UN report would confirm sarin gas usage. And the Syrians confessed to owning tons of the stuff, after years of denying it. And most important of all, an internationally controlled inventory, assembly and decommissioning regimen has been cobbled together in near record time between US and Russian negotiators.

As far as UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon was concerned, he said on Friday that the UN’s weapons inspectors have “overwhelming” evidence chemical weapons were used in that 21 August attack that killed many hundreds of civilians in suburban Damascus. The inspection team, according to a UN source speaking in background to the media, has identified traces of sarin, a key part of the arsenal of the Assad government.

In his hot mike announcement, Ban said, “I believe that the report will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used, even though I cannot say it publicly at this time.” While he didn’t identify who had been responsible specifically, he did accuse the Assad government of carrying out crimes against humanity throughout the two-year-plus civil war. Ban added, “He has committed many crimes against humanity. Therefore I’m sure that there will be surely the process of accountability when everything is over, but at this time first and foremost we have to help the fighting stop and dialogue, talking, begin.”

The anonymous diplomatic source went on to add that the upcoming report, due to be presented on Monday to the Security Council, will say that the inspection team has compiled significant circumstantial evidence indicating Syrian government complicity in the attacks. “The report will clearly say that it is sarin,” the Assad regime’s chemical weapon of choice, the diplomat said. “It clearly hints that the regime is the perpetrator.”

As it stands now, the deal initialled in Geneva between US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov calls for the Syrians to provide a full inventory of their chemical weapons and productions facilities within a week. Then Syria has to admit international inspection teams to have unfettered access to check out these facilities and weapons. Thereafter, the process to destroy these weapons and related facilities begins so that it can be completed by mid-2014. Oh, and obviously the Syrians are not supposed to use them in the meantime on anybody.

Any breach of this timetable would be grounds for referring the matter to the UN under Chapter Seven of the international body’s Charter. That provision speaks to the use of force to sort things out. Of course the Russians have a veto vote in the Security Council but that using that right at the early stages would probably spell the death knell for the newly signed agreement.

In summary, the US-Russia agreement on Syria weapons says: “The US and Russia will work together on a UN Security Council resolution to ensure verification of the agreement to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks and remove its ability to produce any more.”

This resolution will come into place under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for military action, although US officials acknowledge Russia would most likely veto such a step. As such, the Americans do not anticipate seeking authorization for the use of force. American officials note Obama has reserved the right to carry out military strikes to defend US interests in the absence of any UN authorization.

The US and Russia will give Syria until 21 September to provide “a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”

The two nations also agree international inspectors will be on the ground in Syria by November and they will conclude their initial work by the end of that month. They must have “immediate and unfettered” access to inspect all sites and the destruction of all mixing and filling equipment used for chemical weapons materials must be finished by the end of November. They also agree all Syrian chemical weapons stocks, material and equipment must then be destroyed by mid-2014.

There are a number of still-unresolved questions of course. These include the fact that despite Russia and Syria’s close ties, there has, as yet, been no conclusive indication the Syrian government would sign off on every detail of the agreement. This agreement has requirements beyond the normal criteria of the Chemical Weapons Convention. This is the agreement Syria has announced last week it would join, as a result of pressure from Russia.

Additionally, while Russia accepts American intelligence estimates Syria holds about 1,000 metric tonnes of chemical weapons and precursors, the two powers have not yet agreed on the number of sites where these weapons are manufactured or stored. The Americans maintain Syria has around 45 sites but the Russians say the number is rather lower and this could affect how or where inspectors carry out their work.

Moreover, the composition of the inspection teams and their security remains undecided. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the group technically in charge of these upcoming inspections, has never carried out an operation as complicated as this one. It will need help from others to carry out its tasks.

Finally, specific penalties for noncompliance have yet to be agreed upon and, these will be left up to the Security Council. The Russians have been clear about the fact that any allegations of Syrian noncompliance will need to be investigated prior to Security Council action. Should it wish to do so, Russia might well stretch out that process or even veto measures it decides are too harsh on its ally.

With these points in mind, President Obama said in a written statement after the agreement had been signed that he expects Syria to live up to its public commitments to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile. Moreover, he warned that the US remained prepared to act if Syria doesn’t follow the agreement. Obama said in his statement, “The use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere. We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children. Today marks an important step towards achieving this goal.”

But even assuming the Syrian government decides it will comply with the agreement, the timetable is ambitious, say chemical weapons experts. The destruction process for American (and Russian) chemical weapons that began over a decade and a half ago is not yet finished. The Syrian process, by contrast, will be taking place in a nation without the same level of control over such weapons, not to mention being in the midst of a civil war.

Experts add that speed will matter. David Kay, the man who directed efforts to find and destroy Iraqi unconventional arms says, “You have a very limited time to do as much as you can with maximum political support. The political support will start to erode. The people you’re inspecting will get tired. So you want to do as much as you can, as quickly as you can.”

Iraq after the Gulf War is an example of this quick-and-dirty approach. Its chemical arsenal was destroyed at a cost much lower than the American approach for its own weapons, says Charles Duelfer, a top UN official involved in destroying Iraq’s chemical arsenal. Duelfer notes, “We gathered stuff from all over and destroyed it for under $10-million. Some leaky munitions were too dangerous to move, so we’d dig a pit, put in diesel fuel, and blow the stuff up.” Whoa.

Meanwhile, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and America’s Barack Obama, while the war of words that effectively began with Obamas’ quip that Putin was like a naughty boy in a classroom and Putin’s government’s retort that the West was like a monkey with a hand grenade has been tamped down, Obama chose the weekend to place a marker on the table again. Of course, this was after Putin used the pages of the New York Times to tell Obama that his Tuesday night speech citing the exceptionalness of the American experience was a dangerous delusion.

In a pre-recorded statement broadcast on Sunday, Obama said Putin was “protecting” his client Bashar al-Assad and that he doesn’t share American “values” over Syria. Obama noted that Putin “has a different attitude about the Assad regime. But what I’ve also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable. As long as Mr. Assad’s in power, there is going be some sort of conflict there.” So don’t expect all peaches and crème, hug hug, kiss kiss between the two number ones just yet. Even if they did figure out how to parley that brief encounter at the G20, John Kerry’s supposedly off the cuff comment in London and then the Russian proposal, into a full-blown agreement, all in about a week. (Senator John McCain is now due to have his own op-ed appear in Pravda shortly so we’ll get to see if that helps heat up the temperature all over again.)

Beyond the shock of seeing world leaders behave like adults, there has been the fascination of watching as most other national leaders remain in a state of generally wary silence, almost as if they were afraid to break the spell of what has occurred so far. There has been virtually no direct comment from China, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, North Korea or a host of other nations, although it is certain their respective foreign ministries are working late to sort out the implications for their own positions. Among the ostensible American allies, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, did say Saturday’s development was “a significant step forward,” while Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said, “if deeds now follow the words, the chances of a political solution will rise significantly.” Not profound maybe, but at least positive.

Even American commentators, a notoriously noisy bunch in the best of circumstances, have been unusually non-plussed by the comprehensiveness and rapidity of this agreement. As a result, they’ve generally fallen back on their earlier views, just using the new agreement to support earlier positions. Arguing for a nuanced real-politick position, Ross Douthat, putting words into Vladimir Putin’s mouth after Putin’s own column had appeared in Douthat’s paper, had the Russian leader saying: “Here is a message to transmit to your readers: As much fun as I had baiting them, part of my Op-Ed was sincere. I am not America’s enemy. I do not wish a new cold war. I do not wish to dominate the Middle East, whatever that means. No,” he went on, “all I want is an American foreign policy that sees the world as it actually is, and an American leader who can arm-wrestle at my level. Which is what you Americans should want as well, no? Maybe someday you should consider electing one.”

By contrast, fellow Times columnist, Nick Kristof, rebutting the argument intervention must inevitably be a disaster as in the cases of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, argued instead that humanitarian salvation must be a lodestar for American foreign policy and that the sorry saga of Rwanda was confirmation of that view. “President Clinton says one of his biggest regrets is not getting involved and stopping that genocide in 1994 … That was passivity and myopia, and it was wrong. Conversely, in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mali and Ivory Coast, there’s general agreement that the west was right to intervene militarily to avert mass atrocities. The point is that either side can cherry pick examples of successes or failures, and there are also some that fall in-between. But, over all, I’d say that there are more successful humanitarian interventions than failures.”

And Kristof adds, “chemical weapons are special because they are so indiscriminate, with the 21 August sarin attack perhaps the most lethal evening in the entire Syrian war … But if we are broadly retreating from the principle of humanitarian intervention to avert mass atrocities because of compassion fatigue in a tumultuous and ungrateful world, then we’re landing on the wrong side of history, and some day we will look back in shame.”

Meanwhile, war correspondent/filmmaker Sebastian Junger added in the Washington Post that real-politick actually argues for the agreement. He wrote, “Of course, even the most ardent pacifist can’t deny that the credible threat of U.S. force is what made the Syrian regime at all receptive to a Russian proposal that it relinquish control of its stockpiles of nerve agents. If the deal falls apart or proves to be a stalling tactic, military strikes, or at least the threat of them, will again be needed. Already, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s denials have been troubling. His suggestion that the rebels turned nerve gas on themselves to garner the world’s sympathy reminds me of the Serb authorities who said the people of Sarajevo were mortaring themselves; it was just as unconvincing then as it is now.”

Predictably, in the US Congress, Republican senators John McCain from Arizona and Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, among Obama’s sharpest foreign policy critics and supporters of further American assistance for the rebels in Syria, said the agreement would embolden countries like Iran. By contrast, Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives’ Democratic minority leader, praised the President’s “steadfast leadership” for “making significant progress in our efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction”.

But among the Washington foreign policy bureaucracy, for many, the conversation has already been moving on from Syria now that the accord has been signed. For them, the Washington focus is moving to an ugly, looming congressional fight over any possibility of passing a government budget for FY2014 – something that begins in two weeks – and is consequently an issue of real consequence for every government program and agency there is. Soon enough, by contrast, the Syria agreement will become more the preserve of the experts, the hazmat technicians and the analysts, rather than that of the high-level policy makers. At least as long as the agreement actually goes forward.

Looking back over how the way this agreement came about, the muttering from some government foreign policy professionals is astonishment over the erratic strategy pursued by the Obama administration, even if they have ultimately stumbled into a reasonable agreement with the Russians.  Or, as one explained, first there was an administration spoiling for a fight without a congressional vote. Then, in a switch, the president surprised everyone, putting military moves on hold, pushing instead for a congressional vote on a resolution of support. When that began to look precarious, they grasped the Kerry gambit that triggered a real Russian response; then the quick embrace by the White House of the Russian plan; followed by an effort to describe what had happened as the near-inevitable outcome of a careful diplomatic strategy.

The result of the run-up to the agreement is that the Obama administration has some work ahead of it in rebuilding its relations with allies and antagonists, aave for its new partnership with Russia.

And Russia, what has it achieved from all this? For one, it has shielded its long-time ally, Assad’s Syria, from possible destruction (as well as its military hardware sales and its naval base on the Syrian coast). For another, it has reinserted itself as a front-line player in Middle East developments. And finally, it has found a way to create a relationship of parity with the US – something that has eluded it since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Although the rebels have clearly been disappointed over this chemical agreement, the commander of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, general Salim Idris, told a news conference in Turkey that the agreement would “buy time” and that rebels will continue “fighting the regime and work for bringing it down.” He added that if inspectors come into Syria, “we will facilitate their passages but there will be no cease-fire.” His group would not stop their work and the “inspectors will not be subjected to rebel fire when they are in regime-controlled areas.”

There is, of course, that small matter of the continuing civil war in Syria. This chemical weapons agreement – even if it goes lockstep to a successful conclusion – is not going to end the war there. However, there is the idea that success in one area can lead to more support for further efforts as the fighting wears down both sides, but presumably before the majority of the country’s population is forced into becoming refugees in vast tent cities in southern Turkey or northern Jordan. And while all that is happening, defence and security officials in Israel and Turkey will be watching closely, just as they will be in Tehran and Pyongyang. And for all of this, neither the Obama administration nor any of the factions that opposes him in the American political realm (from isolationists to neo-conservative active interventionists) really seems to have a fully worked-out plan yet. DM


For more, read:

  • Obama: Russia doesn’t share US ‘values’ in Syria, at the AP
  • Obama welcomes Syrian chemical weapons agreement, at the AP
  • If History Is Any Measure, the Clock Is Ticking, at the New York Times
  • US-Russia reach agreement on Syria weapons, at the AP
  • U.N. Chief Says He Has ‘Overwhelming’ Evidence of Chemical Attacks in Syria, at Foreign Policy
  • Exclusive: John McCain Will Attack Vladimir Putin in the Pages of Pravda, in Foreign Policy
  • Call Me Vlad, a column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times
  • Hearing You Out, a column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times;
  • When the best chance for peace means war, a column by Sebastian Junger in the Washington Post
  • Can Obama be neo-Machiavellian?, A column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post
  • U.S., Russia reach agreement on seizure of Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, at the Washington Post
  • Obama’s larger Syria strategy in disarray, at the AP
  • Deal Reached to Destroy Chemical Arms in Syria, at the New York Times
  • US and Russia agree Syria chemical weapons deal in Geneva, at the BBC
  • President Obama to Bashar Assad: Keep your promises, in Politico
  • McCain will write op-ed for Russian newspaper, in the Washington Post
  • Limited Options, at the New Yorker
  • Losing the Middle East to Putin Isn’t Victory, at Commentary
  • Kerry heading to Israel to update Netanyahu on Syria deal, at Haaretz
  • Striking Syria? Obama, Congress and Military Action, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center
  • Wilson Center Experts Provide Reaction and Analysis on the President’s Address on Syria, at the Wilson Center
  • Why Vladimir Putin Thinks We’re Out to Get Him, at Time
  • Here’s What Went Unmentioned in Putin’s New York Times, an by Op-ed by Julia Ioffe in The New Republic
  • The importance of being an oasis of stability, a column by Yoel Marcus in Haaretz
  • Syria’s chemical weapons – Distrust and verify – Russia’s plan to disarm, at the Economist
  • Realpolitik is the winner in US-Russia weapons agreement, at the Financial Times

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands after making statements following meetings regarding Syria, at a news conference in Geneva September 14, 2013. The United States and Russia have agreed on a proposal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Kerry said on Saturday after nearly three days of talks with Lavrov. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich


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