The Buzz

Russia's Syria Deal Is Not Real

It’s time for a reality check. Russia’s proposed deal for Syria to abandon its chemical weapons arsenal is hardly, in President Obama’s words, a “significant breakthrough.” The president said last week that the initiative could avert American strikes on Syria “if it’s real.” But it isn’t. Rather, the Russian plan will not work—and Obama knows it. Yet he and his administration have welcomed this initiative. Why?

A senior State Department official recently said that any proposed deal must be “swift”, “real”, and “verifiable.” The administration has also declared that it must be “comprehensive” and “enforceable.” For many reasons, it can be none of these things.

The deal won’t be swift. As Dina Esfandiari has pointed out, even if Assad were to fully declare all of his chemical weapons stockpiles—a big if—it is unlikely that this could be done in the seven-day timeframe proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who rejected Assad’s argument that Syria should have 30 days to do so. Destroying a chemical arsenal as large as Assad’s, estimated by some to be the world’s largest, “doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it is more realistic to talk in years than in months.”

The plan won’t be enforceable, because Russia has refused to agree to any deal that is. Although the U.S., Britain, and France concur that any chemical inspection regime for Syria must be legally binding and backed by the authorization to use force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in response to Syrian noncompliance, Russia has already objected to a draft Security Council resolution to this effect. So administration officials changed their tune on Friday, saying that Obama would accept a UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) not backed by the threat of force.

Although Russia and the U.S. have since agreed to file a UNSCR under Chapter VII, any violations warranting punishment would be referred back to the Security Council, where Russia could block the use of force. As Secretary Kerry noted, “Use of force is clearly one of the options that may or may not be available to the Security Council" (italics mine). But even with Chapter VII authority, the middling American and international reactions to the regime’s previous alleged instances of chemical weapons use—to the extent that there has been any reaction—would hardly convince Assad that violation of the deal would be inescapably met with force.

No wonder Assad immediately embraced the plan. What’s more, he is attempting to milk it for all it’s worth. Russian President Vladimir Putin said a deal could work only if the U.S. and its relevant allies “tell us they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.” Apparently this is insufficient for Assad, who said in an interview on Thursday that Syria won’t relinquish its chemical weapons unless the U.S. stops arming the rebels, which the CIA began doing in recent weeks, according to Syrian figures and American officials.

A deal along the lines of the Russian proposal will also not be comprehensive, verifiable, or real, owing to the fact that the Assad regime and opposition forces each control territory in Syria, and many areas are hotly contested. Although a CRS report released on Thursday states that “U.S. officials have expressed confidence that chemical weapons stocks in Syria are secured by the Asad regime”, on-the-ground inspection will be necessary to verify this; that is, they are needed if the goal of the plan is to verifiably rid Syria of chemical weapons—as opposed to merely depriving the Syrian government of them.