Analysis: Russia's silver bullet on Syria

Taking control over Syria's chemical arms, in the middle of its civil war, will make the START Treaty look like tryouts.

Putin and Assad (R370) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Putin and Assad (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – If implemented, Russia’s plan to solve the global crisis in Syria by placing the regime’s chemical arms under international control would, theoretically, produce historic results.
The world would suddenly be rid of the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in its most dangerous region, currently controlled by a man who is, apparently, willing to use them against children.
Vladimir Putin could claim that Russia has reinforced world order, and US President Barack Obama would declare a victory for nonproliferation – a pillar of his foreign policy since 2008, and the justification for any military action in Syria he may have otherwise ordered.
On Tuesday, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad appeared ready to make some of those concessions. The United Nations and Russia would oversee and destroy Syria’s chemical arms, its foreign minister said, and would identify its stockpiles for their destruction. Syria will disown them and will sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said. His comments mark a shift in over three decades of policy.
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For the proposal’s implementation, Syria may have to agree to a cease-fire that would allow for a small army of inspectors and international operators to invade the dozens of chemical storage facilities scattered throughout the country.
Emphasizing the drama of the shift is the fact that, just on Sunday, Assad told American interviewer Charlie Rose that he could not confirm Syria possessed these weapons. Assad has never previously admitted to their existence, despite widespread knowledge throughout intelligence communities that the Russians slowly supplied Syria’s chemical weapons program over several decades.
Even if he did possess them, he wouldn’t dare use them, Assad says. And even if he did, “killing is killing,” regardless of the means, he told Rose.
The basis of the Chemical Weapons Convention is the notion that these gasses are weapons of mass destruction too cruel and indiscriminate for even the ugliest battlefields.
The fact that Assad may have changed his decades-long position on the value of these arms, somewhere over the past three days – with no changes to the strategic environment, and with the threat of force only waning from a skeptical Congress – would mark an exceptional moment in modern foreign affairs.
The same government that originally helped build Syria’s massive chemical program has now proposed a plan for its destruction. If a cease-fire is agreed upon – the plan would be contingent on the safety and accessibility of the monitoring team – then Russia would have made the world safer and paused one of its worst conflicts.
Russia’s plan has a precedent.
Before the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russia proposed that international monitors provide strict oversight of the activities of Saddam Hussein. Previous US administrations disregarded those proposals.
Executing this plan will make the START Treaty look like tryouts.
With over 1,000 tons of arms scattered nationwide, thousands of monitors and millions of dollars will be required.
They will be operating in the middle of a devastating civil war.
If Assad has truly agreed to forfeit his deterrence against Israel, pause his war against rebelling civilians, acknowledge and disown his chemical weapons arsenal and open up his country to the world, then the United States has created a historic opportunity with the specter of military force.
But Washington is skeptical.
When Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in London on Monday and suggested Syria do just that over the next week, he felt the need to throw up his hands.
“He isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done,” Kerry said, “obviously.”