Russia's Syria Deal Is Not Real

September 17, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: Syria Blog Brand: The Buzz

Russia's Syria Deal Is Not Real

So why did Obama say yes?

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.

That some element(s) of the opposition might possess chemical weapons is not beyond the realm of possibility. In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, suggested in an interview that the rebels had used sarin gas, a claim quickly rejected by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Gwyn Winfield, the editorial director of
CBRNe World, argues that the rebels possess the experience and perhaps also the delivery capability to launch a chemical attack, and that it is possible that the rebels may "have overrun an arms dump which had some of the [chemical] agent" or that a government "defector brought a limited amount with him." On Friday, Turkish prosecutors alleged that Syrian rebel groups were seeking materials to produce sarin gas for the Al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade (both groups are unaffiliated with the FSA). From the first instance of alleged chemical weapons use, in Aleppo this March, to the most recent, in Ghoutta on August 21, the Syrian government has accused the rebels of using chemical weapons, as has Russia. Secretary Kerry did not contest Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's contention that there may be one or two chemical weapons sites in rebel-held locations. ="#axzz2eo3yam6l">

Will inspectors even attempt to enter rebel-held territory? If chemical disarmament in Syria is to be truly comprehensive, then they must. (After all, Russia and Syria have charged that there are chemical weapons in these areas.) The plan envisions that both government and opposition forces with facilitate the inspectors’ work.

This puts the anti-Assad opposition in a serious bind. If a deal is reached and weapons inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are sent to Syria, will they be granted access to rebel-held areas, which comprise a majority of the country? What incentive will the rebels have to facilitate a verification effort that, if successful, would significantly reduce the likelihood of international armed intervention in their favor? None. But they also would not want to be seen as obstructing the inspectors’ efforts and, by extension, sabotaging diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflict. Whether or not the opposition concocts some reason to deny the inspectors access or obstruct their movement, they would have an incentive to do so.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition slammed the deal. The leader of the FSA, General Salim Idriss, already categorically rejected the plan. He insisted that there are “no chemical weapons on territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army,” but declared that his forces would “not hinder the work of UN monitors” if they sought to enter rebel-controlled territory. The Syrian National Coalition has also opposed it, saying in a statement that “Crimes against humanity cannot be absolved through political concessions, or surrendering the weapons used to commit them.”

Nonetheless, even if the rebels do not currently control chemical weapons, government-held territory where chemical weapons are based could fall into their hands before the weapons are removed or destroyed. As the recent CRS report notes, “The nature and recent course of the conflict in Syria suggests that rapid changes in control over critical military facilities may occur.” And if rebels do possess chemical weapons—now or prospectively—these weapons could subsequently fall into government hands if the regime makes territorial gains.

There are also many other reasons why a deal can’t work on an operational level, particularly because it would have to be implemented in an active warzone, but you get the point. So what could explain the administration’s embrace of it?

One potential explanation is that Obama really does want to strike Syria, and is attempting to build political support for doing so. By pursuing this diplomatic path—which he knows is likely to fail—the president can make the case that all peaceful options have been exhausted and that he is resorting to force as a last resort. This could help shift opinion at home, both in Congress and amongst the American people, as well as internationally, particularly among U.S. allies. It provides time to whip together much-needed votes on the Hill for authorizing force—if there ever is a vote.

Another possible explanation is that the administration doesn’t know what it will do next, and sees Russia’s proposal as a way to just buy time and determine its next move. It can be tempting to try to make sense of individual actions by situating them within the context of some larger, preconceived strategy. But we should keep in mind that there might be no overarching game plan here. Many aspects of how the administration has responded to the Syrian crisis so far are certainly consistent with this.

Or maybe Obama just wants a break. By pursuing Russia’s proposal, the administration has embarked down a road to nowhere. Yet it is difficult to know how long of a road it will be, or what might transpire along the way. It seems plausible that Obama hopes it will be quite long—prolonging the time during which the ball is not in his court—or that it will hit a dead-end upon reaching nowhere. Perhaps he wants both.

The president seems to want to wipe his hands of this whole mess. This was clearly illustrated when he told reporters on Thursday that he is shifting his focus to domestic priorities and leaving Secretary Kerry to handle Syria talks. "Even as we have been spending a lot of time on the Syria issue [...] it is still important to recognize that we've got a lot more stuff to do here," he said. Instead of Syria, the president will now focus on immigration, budget, and healthcare issues. Unlike with regards to Syria, he might make meaningful progress in these areas.