The outline for a plan to strip Syria of its chemical weapons, agreed to Saturday by the United States and Russia, appears to be a victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The proposed steps will likely be backed by a United Nations resolution and are aimed at identifying and removing the Syrian regime’s arsenal nerve and blister agents, reported to amount to approximately 1000 metric tons.
Following talks in Geneva, Switzerland, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced what Lavrov described as an “agreed proposal”, which calls for the Syrian government to account for its chemical stockpiles, which will then be destroyed under international supervision. Hailing the agreement, Kerry said that it would “end the threat that these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to their neighbors; to the region.”
The two-page framework agreement, published in the Washington Post, is not yet backed by the force of law and the two countries have agreed to seek a UN resolution to legitimize the demands laid out therein. The resolution is likely forthcoming, since no other nation with the power of veto will likely object to the proposals.
It is quite evident, however, that the terms agreed upon so far represent little more than a weak attempt at face-saving for the US administration that has struggled to retain its credibility over its threatened response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. Conversely, the Syrian regime and its powerful foreign ally, Russia, may have scored something of a victory by completely delegitimizing any military intervention on the part of the US. In August, President Obama issued a thinly-veiled threat that the United States would take military action against the Syrian government, were the latter found to have used chemical weapons in the more than two-year-old conflict. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime…that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” When a United States President uses the words “we” and “us”, it is understood that he is referring to the US government and/or America as a nation. Clearly, he was drawing a red line over which Assad should not step. Less than a month later, however, the President denied having “set a red line”, saying, instead, that the world had set this line with international bans on the manufacture and use of chemical weapons. In the face of widespread opposition – both at home and abroad – to a military attack on Syria, Obama was forced to whitewash his red line and has been on his back foot ever since. With this latest agreement on dealing with chemical weapons in Syria, it seems as though Putin and Assad now have him against the ropes and have scored at least a temporary victory.
A deal had reportedly been offered by the administration that would have enabled Assad to avoid military action; He would have had to step down and agree not to seek re-election in proposed democratic elections. Russia quickly rejected this idea, however, and the framework agreement reached Saturday effectively removes all options for the United States to retain any control over the Syrian situation. Assuming that this framework is fleshed out into a formal accord and backed by a UN resolution, it still fails the tests of practicality, enforceability and the carrying of any threat of undesirable consequences for Syria.
The first action required of Syria is a full accounting of its chemical stockpiles. In a country torn apart by savage fighting and in which the Syrian army finds itself no longer in control of many areas, it is fanciful to imagine that this accounting could possibly be achieved – particularly since the timeframe is one week. In that time, Syria is expected 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.
It is, of course, likely that John Kerry and President Obama are so detached from reality as to imagine that such a task can be achieved within a week, in the midst of a full-scale war. It is certain, however, that both the Russians and the Syrians are fully aware that such a task is impossible. Further; the proposed agreement then calls for these materials to be recovered, removed from the country “if possible” and then destroyed – the destruction phase beginning next year. The document also calls for the destruction of facilities used for the development and production of such weapons.
President Assad, meanwhile, has submitted a letter to the United Nations, signaling his intention to sign on to international agreements banning chemical weapons. This will serve to provide him with cover, when his regime is unable to completely and accurately account for its chemical arsenal; he can merely protest that the chaotic state of his country prevented him from providing accurate records but his signing of international accords proved his willingness to comply.
Although the US administration insists that it reserves the right to take unilateral military action against Syria, it agreed to drop any such threats from the latest accord. Should the Syrian regime fail to comply with the demands laid out in any eventual resolution, therefore, it would face nothing more than UN sanctions; a threat that has proven wholly ineffective on numerous occasions, throughout the world.
The final way in which the Geneva agreement fails – and provides an obvious indication that Russia does not take this proposal seriously – is its omission of any demands on the Syrian opposition. If President Putin viewed this agreement as anything more than a way to sideline the United States and delegitimize the threat of military intervention, he would have insisted that the Syrian rebels also make themselves accountable to the UN. The al-Qaeda-linked opposition fighters are suspected – according to both the United Nations and Russia – of being responsible for at least one chemical attack and yet no demands have been made of them, regarding the possession or use of chemical munitions.
General Salim Idriss of the Syrian opposition forces, speaking in Istanbul, Turkey, dismissed the latest agreement on the grounds that it did not punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons near the Syrian capital, Damascus, in August. “What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?” he said, “We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.”
The United States, therefore, has agreed to enter into a pact which effectively prevents it from taking military action against Syria without being seen as reneging on an international agreement. In addition, it has further alienated itself from the Syrian opposition for the sake of a set of demands that cannot realistically be met. Assad and Putin have pulled off at least a temporary victory on the international stage; this agreement cannot guarantee the removal of all chemical weapons from Syria; it does not punish the Syrian government for failure to comply and it does not address the fact that chemical weapons are very likely in the hands of extremists fighting to depose Assad – and have, in all probability, already been used by them against the civilian population.
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An editorial by Graham J Noble