Too good to be true: on the deal on Syria’s chemical disarmament

September 14, 2013

The deal on Syria’s chemical disarmament, announced by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov today in Geneva, is well short of a victory for America and the West. Lacking any concrete threat of force for non-compliance, it could be used by Syria’s bloody dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to deceive the global community and hold on to his gases nonetheless.


When Russian officials announced their plan for the Syrian government to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles to the UN for destruction, thus averting an American punitive strike, everybody agreed that it had to be given a chance. Hailed by Russia’s press as a “diplomatic coup”, it did seem a comfortable solution to all involved. With no gases in Assad’s arsenal, there would be no ground for an American intervention. Staying at home is popular among both the American public and their representatives in Congress; with Putin’s proposal, Obama has dodged a defeat that could have well wrecked his presidency. Assad has dodged a strike that could well wreck his everything. And Putin has won a major victory: not only has he been the one to avert, or at least delay, another American campaign in the Middle East, but he has also made himself look like a good guy, clearing the path for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


It is far too good to be true. President Obama knows that: he and his people have been reiterating it all week that any such agreement would have to be verifiable and backed up by the threat of force, should anything go wrong. The agreement announced today calls on the Syrian government to prepare a complete list of its chemical weapons stockpiles within one week and give the international inspection team unrestricted and immediate authority over them, with a view to demolishing all production facilities by November this year and eliminating all chemical weapons in the first half of next year. Ambitious plan, by all accounts; some say it could take several years to destroy what might be the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenal. There is but one detail to cast a shadow on this diplomatic achievement and that is enforceability.


The United States seemed to be determined to ask for a resolution to be passed in the UN Security Council to back up the agreement. This resolution would have sanctioned the use of military force in case the Assad regime doesn’t abide by the terms of the deal. Yet what’s been agreed is as weak as a Ghouta schoolgirl. If Syria does not comply, the case will be referred back to the Security Council, where a resolution would be sought to allow for military action. America and the West is back to square one, that is.


I believe Mr Putin wants his plan to work. He has seen the fortunes of war turn quickly in this prolonged civil war. He fears, were the rebels to prevail, Chechen fighters and their pals in Syria could quickly get that gas to his country’s Caucasian underbelly. Also, he wants this to be an impressive achievement to herald his ambition to restore Russia’s place as a world power. 


And it’s because of this very ambition that Putin will hardly let go of Assad. He has now held onto him for too long and risked too much. It is an issue of strategy and economy as much as it is an issue of pride. Russia is very unlikely to support a resolution empowering Obama to bomb Syrian government forces even if it turns out that Assad is in fact not willing to say goodbye to his secret plan of gassing tens of thousands of his compatriots, should everything else fail.


Why would he be willing to do so? He is now scared to death of an American attack, that’s for sure. But how is he to be trusted? A man who has been stubbornly denying he possesses chemical weapons until the last minute, while quietly testing the US’ willingness to respond by carrying out gas attacks on an ever larger scale. A man who denied entry into his country to UN inspectors while he destroyed practically all evidence of the attack they were to inspect. (He must have forgotten something: the UN convoy was shot on by unidentified snipers after leaving their hotel on the first day of the mission.) No; one cannot make a bona fide deal with Assad. He quite probably wants to avoid punishment, but hold on to at least some of his chemical weapons.


This agreement might allow him to. He could have already spread his stockpile out over hundreds of different sites across Syria. He could have hidden some well. He could even have had some transferred to Lebanon by way of his allies, Hezbollah. Now he has about a week to finish the job. And since no one knows exactly what and how much of it he has, he can assemble any list he pleases. It will then be up to the inspectors to do their job well - if, of course, the government can, or wants to, guarantee their security and give them access to whatever they want, whenever they want.


When striking this deal out, the US gave up its most important condition. Mr Lavrov was not ready to accept it; and the proposal, even if untrue, was simply too good to be rejected. But America should keep a vigilant eye on the developments and maintain its readiness to strike. If it becomes clear that Mr Assad has fooled them - and Mr Putin is still reluctant to support the intervention - they will have to bypass the Security Council and act up. 

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