Effective arms-reduction processes have always been difficult and uncertain, and
there are many reasons to be sceptical regarding the prospects of success in the
case of Syria. But history shows that in some cases, shared interests have led
to treaties, enforcement and major reductions in nuclear and chemical weapons
The agreement reached by Russia and the US on Syria builds on
the lessons learned in decades of armscontrol agreements. Perhaps most
importantly, the political environment is similar to the periods of détente
during the Cold War.
While the Americans and the Soviets continued to
confront each other in Vietnam and elsewhere, they shared core interests in
preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to unstable
countries and regions, including in the Middle East.
In the Syrian case,
the two major powers would both stand to benefit from the agreement and its
implementation, while failure would be very costly. Russian President Vladimir
Putin has succeeded in returning Russia to center stage, as co-manager of
international crises with the US – an historic achievement after 25 years in
which Russia was dismissed as weak and largely irrelevant.
this regained prestige, the agreement must be implemented, while a breakdown
would weaken Putin’s position and again endanger the survival of his client (the
Assad regime) in Syria. In addition, the Russians are vulnerable to terror
attacks, including the use of chemical weapons, and have an interest in
strengthening the taboo.
For US President Barack Obama, this agreement
has the potential for untangling the complexities caused by the failure to deter
Syria from using chemical weapons. On the one hand, Obama’s actions displayed
popular opposition to becoming involved in Syria, but on the other hand, he
could not simply walk away. The agreement with the Russians has resolved this
dilemma for now, but if it is not implemented, Obama will be forced to act or to
lose even more credibility, both domestically and with Israel, regarding the US
pledge to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability. To highlight
the threat of force if implementation is blocked, US Secretary of State John
Kerry reiterated the continuing threat of unilateral military action against
Furthermore, in contrast with early arms-control frameworks that
were ambiguous and lacked “teeth,” the terms negotiated in Geneva contained
specific procedures and milestones, beginning with a one-week deadline for Syria
to provide a full list of its stockpiles.
This is another reflection of
decades of experience, including failed agreements that allowed North Korea to
acquire nuclear weapons and Iran to move closer to doing so. Here as well,
lessons have been learned.
Enforcement in the case of Syria will require
extensive Russian- American cooperation – together, they can eventually
neutralize most of the stockpiles, as is also specified in the agreed text. Such
coordination in meetings of the UN Security Council will avoid the lengthy
debates and delays, as in the cases of Iraq and Iran. The inspection and
destruction process must begin quickly to maintain credibility – a difficult
task under the civil-war conditions in Syria. On the other hand, if they cannot
agree in the Security Council, the failure will be obvious and costly to
The mechanisms for verifying the Syrian report on its
chemicalweapons stockpiles – estimated at over 1,000 tons of sarin, VX and
mustard gas – also reflect decades of experience. The Chemical Weapons
Convention, signed in 1993, was much tighter than the earlier Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it tried to close the large loopholes that allowed
Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and, later, Iran to hide their illicit nuclear
programs. The CWC and the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
included more aggressive inspection as well as destruction
Many countries, including the US and Russia, began to destroy
tons of CW stockpiles under OPCW supervision – although the process was slow and
expensive. Most of the Middle East stayed away, including Syria, which maintains
the largest CW arsenal.
The experience of the existing verification and
inspection system allows for an accelerated procedure, beginning with the
analysis of the Syrian reporting of its CW stockpiles. Satellite and other
remote sensing technologies will allow for detailed analysis of this report,
followed by on-site inspections.
As stated by Kerry in Geneva, the US and
Russia know the location of these storage sites (which are in areas held by the
regime) and would be able to quickly detect Syrian efforts to hide the
information or to create confusion. In addition, neutralization of the
manufacturing facilities can begin quickly, followed by destruction of missiles
and artillery launchers. The full process, involving thousands of individual
weapons, could take many months, as acknowledged in the agreement, but a good
start is essential.
This is an admittedly optimistic scenario, although
anchored in a realist interpretation of Russian and American interests on this
issue. There are still many areas of disagreement, particularly regarding the
survival of the Assad regime, and they could lead to crises and confrontation.
But having gone very far in reaching an agreement, a failure to implement the
terms would be very costly for both Putin and Obama.
The author, from
Bar-Ilan University and NGO Monitor, has advised the US and Israeli governments
on arms control and served as the Israeli delegate to IAEA workshops on a Middle
East Nuclear Free Zone.