U.S. only gains by calling Russia’s Syria bluff


Bloomberg News

Russia’s proposal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons has been derided as cynical, unworkable or, at best, a stalling tactic. It may be all of these things. Still, the West should call Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bluff: Even a limited inspection and disarmament program would do more damage to Syria’s capabilities than a handful of missiles.

As President Obama outlined in an address Tuesday night, the proposed strikes are intended to inflict punishment on Syrian military units responsible for chemical warfare and to deter future massacres. They were never intended to change the military balance, to solve the civil war or to eliminate chemical weapons. The war plans avoid targeting the actual stockpiles, for fear of spreading toxic plumes or leaving sites open to plunder.

Opening Syrian stockpiles to inspectors and destroying even a fraction of the weapons could go further to achieve the West’s goals than the type of limited attack under consideration.

This isn’t to say that the Russian plan is without pitfalls. The tasks of assessing and destroying a country’s chemical weapons are daunting. Almost a decade after promising to disarm, Libya still possessed almost half of its mustard gas and precursors; Syria has a much bigger stockpile. The United States started destroying its chemical weapons in the 1990s, and the effort is expected to drag on until 2023 at a cost of $35 billion.

In addition, huge risks are involved with moving chemical weapons across a war zone, and destroying them in place will require building expensive, specialized facilities.

Nevertheless, President Bashar Assad has shown over the past two years that he can move and consolidate his stockpiles under difficult conditions. At the very least, more centralized storage sites under heavy international monitoring would make it harder for the regime to prepare further chemical weapons or use existing stockpiles.

An intermediate solution could also require that some substances be moved out of the country, under heavy Russian guard. The country’s weaponized stockpiles — for instance, sarin gas stored in missile warheads — could be prioritized for elimination, leaving less threatening agents for later. As disarmament experts Jean Pascal Zanders and Ralf Trapp have noted, the plan is demanding but “technologically and humanly possible.”

All of this assumes, of course, that Putin and Assad aren’t merely playing for time. To ensure they are sincere, they must meet certain crucial conditions.

First, Syria must sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, as it has promised to do. And its tally of its chemical weapons holdings must roughly match existing intelligence estimates. Any big discrepancies would be a deal breaker. Inspectors must be able to roam widely, looking for undeclared stockpiles or sites, and be allowed to interview Syrian scientists and officers.

Second, any deal must set clear deadlines for every stage. The Chemical Weapons Convention gives Syria a month to declare its holdings and a decade to eliminate its weapons. This timeline would have to be expedited, and inspectors would have to enter Syria by Christmas.

Third, and most important, the U.N. Security Council must back any plan with a so-called Chapter VII resolution, permitting the use of force. The threat of military action is what compelled Syria to allow in U.N. inspectors last month and to agree to Russia’s proposal this week. To make the threat more credible, Obama should seek Congress’s authorization for strikes if Russia or Syria renege on the plan’s terms.

Let’s consider the worst-case scenario: Putin and Assad aren’t sincere, and their offer is a ploy to forestall an imminent strike, with the hope of tying up the U.S. in a frustrating game of cat-and-mouse, as Iraq did in the 1990s.

That concern is easily dismissed: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress this week that the earliest date for a strike would be mid-October. The military threat would remain intact. It could be enhanced even. Congress, the American public and the international community would be far more likely to back a strike if a good faith disarmament effort has been tried and failed.

Shashank Joshi is a research fellow at the Royal United Institute in London.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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