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Controlling Syria's Chemical Weapons: Why the US Should Call Putin's Bluff

Commentary, 12 September 2013
Americas, Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Critics accuse President Obama of walking into a Russian trap. But even partial implementation of the disarmament plan reduces the likelihood that chemical weapons are used, without foreclosing any American options.

Critics accuse President Obama of walking into a Russian trap. But even partial implementation of the disarmament plan reduces the likelihood that chemical weapons are used, without foreclosing any American options.

 Barack Obama Putin G8

Russia's proposal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons has been derided as cynical, unworkable, and worthless - a political masterstroke by Russian President Vladimir Putin that discombobulated the White House and averted military action. Yet the instant analysis may be getting this wrong: Putin may have scored a temporary diplomatic victory, but his gambit will either lead to a far greater degradation of Syrian chemical weapons that could have been achieved by American cruise missiles, or greater domestic and international support for a limited American war than can be mustered at present.

As President Barack Obama himself recognised this week, the proper course is to call Putin's bluff - to trust, but verify - just as resolutely as Putin has tried to call America's. The result need not leave Obama any worse off than today. Just the initiation (note: not completion) of a programme of inspections and disarmament is, in theory, capable of doing more to unmask and constrain Syrian chemical weapons than the 'unbelievably small' attack than had been promised by US Secretary of State John Kerry (reports of an expanding target set and the possible use of aircraft may have been true, or just a device to secure the backing of Congressional hawks), and if the plan collapses - in a week, a month, or six months - then the use of force need not be taken off the table.

The proposed one-off strikes in Syria - comparable to the missile strikes of 1998 Operation Desert Fox and not any of the past decade's campaigns - had a very specific aim. They were not intended to change the military balance, to solve the civil war, or to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. In fact, current war plans assiduously avoid targeting the actual stockpiles, for fear of spreading toxic plumes or leaving sites open to plunder.

Critics claim that there was no objective, but this is simply untrue. The aim was to inflict punishments on Syrian military units responsible for chemical warfare, to demonstrate that military gains that might accrue from the use of chemical weapons would be negated, making massacres like that of 21 August not worth the cost. Deterring a leader in an existential war of survival is difficult, but the regime - whether Assad himself or subordinates - presumably weighs up the costs and benefits of using chemical weapons. According to Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the 21 August attack was the fifteenth and largest such incident, suggesting that previous attacks had been consciously limited in scope. This implies 'deterrability'.

Why an Imperfect Plan Can Still Curb Chemical Weapons

Yet if the aim is to reduce the likelihood that Syrian chemical weapons are used again, then blanketing Syrian stockpiles with inspectors and destroying even a fraction of them could offer an alternative route to the same end, without foreclosing the alternative. True, the task is mammoth. Nearly a decade after promising to disarm, Libya still possessed nearly half of its mustard gas and precursors (the ingredients for chemical weapons). Syria has a much bigger stockpile. The US started destroying its own chemical weapons in the 1990s. It estimates that the effort will drag on until 2023 and cost $35 billion. There are huge risks involved with moving chemical weapons across a warzone, and destroying them in place will require building expensive, specialised facilities. A multinational force will have to guard many of these facilities in the face of possible attacks by both rebel and regime forces.

Yet the technical difficulties should not be overestimated either. The UN inspectors' experience in Syria last month, facing attacks during inspections, is instructive and cautionary. But, remember, they eventually fulfilled their task and managed to collect ''rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples ... that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability''. Currently, the Russian proposal is reported to have 'lacked detail on how the stockpiles would be secured, verified and destroyed'.

Moreover, Syria has shown over the past two years that it can move and consolidate its stockpiles under difficult conditions. In December, Russian officials went as far as to claim that the Syrians had centralised their chemical weapons to 'one or two' locations - that seems exaggerated, but the trend is recognised even by Western officials. At the very least, more centralised storage sites under heavy international monitoring would make it harder for the regime to prepare further chemical weapons or use existing stockpiles.

Russian involvement would make it more embarrassing were Syria to use chemical weapons again, giving Moscow an additional incentive to constrain their ally. It is not implausible, as Jeffrey Lewis notes, that some substances could be moved to Jordan - perhaps under heavy Russian or multinational guard. The country's weaponised stockpiles - for instance, sarin gas stored in missile warheads - could be prioritised for elimination, leaving less threatening forms for later.

As disarmament experts Jean Pascal Zanders and Ralf Trapp have noted in a detailed and excellent piece of analysis, the plan is demanding but 'technologically and humanly possible'. David Kay, former head of the US Iraq Survey Group and a weapons inspector in Iraq, assesses that 'it can be done. You are going to break a lot of crockery in doing it ... you need to take this opportunity to test and see if the Syrians and the Russians are real'.

Giving the Proposal Teeth

The difficulties are predominantly political rather than technical. And this is why certain conditions will be crucial to ensure that Putin and Assad are not simply playing for time.

First, after Syria signs and ratifies the Chemical Weapons Convention (as it has promised to do), its initial declaration of chemical weapons holdings must tally with existing national intelligence estimates. Any substantial discrepancies which cannot be quickly reconciled would be deal-breakers. Inspectors must have free rein to roam widely, looking for undeclared stockpiles or sites, and interviewing Syrian scientists and officers, on the basis of foreign intelligence. Coverage would never be perfect - but then neither would Tomahawks.

Second, any deal must have 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. Inspectors would have to enter Syria by Christmas. Additional demands would need to be placed on Syria: that it shift all deployed chemical weapons into centralised sites, and that inspectors' access to dual-use systems, such as certain types of artillery, be wide-ranging. If cheating reached a certain threshold, the same punitive strikes that are on the table today would remain an option.

Third, and most importantly, the UN Security Council should seek to back any plan with a so-called Chapter VII resolution permitting the use of force. A French draft resolution circulated on Wednesday included this proviso, which was met with predictable resistance from Russia. Contrary to the claims of many war-opponents, threats of force have clearly enhanced rather than detracted from diplomacy. They proved crucial in coercing Syria first to allow in inspectors, and then to agree to Russia's proposal. If the shadow of war now lifts, Assad has little incentive to cooperate.  For the same reason, President Obama must not let up in his effort to seek Congress' authorisation for strikes, should Russia or Syria renege on the plan's terms.

In some ways, this is a problem of mutual credible commitment. The West cannot take it on mere trust that Russia and Syria will comply; yet others claim that Russia was misled over Libya in 2011, and cannot therefore allow an open-ended authorisation that might be later misused for a wider war of regime change.

But even if President Obama were inclined to give negative security assurances - to promise restraint if Assad complies - he has few means of credibly committing to this, and moreover would face a political backlash for appearing to abandon his insistence that Assad must go. Obama is likelier to convince Russia to agree to a resolution with teeth if Putin believes that the alternative is unilateral strikes with or without UN sanction - and that, in turn, depends on whether Congress and American allies are willing to offer support to that end.

No Rush: Why the US Gives Up Little

Critics claim that talking to Russia is a distraction; that Putin seeks only to delay Congress' vote until the matter is forgotten, and to tie up the United States in a game of cat-and-mouse akin to that experienced with Iraq in the 1990s. But US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee this week that the earliest date for a strike would be mid-October. This suggests that there is little downside to diplomacy: the alternative to negotiation is not an immediate strike. Assad has already moved human shields into place, and concealed some of his military assets. Military surprise has been entirely lost. Indeed, Congress, the US public, and the international community are likelier to look more favourably upon any strike if it occurs after such a disarmament effort has been tried and failed (see James Fearon's analysis of that question here).

Under these circumstances, the United States is correct to explore the possibility of a deal. But if this is to be more than a face-saving climb-down for Obama, a confidence trick by Moscow, or a delaying tactic by Assad, it is imperative that any plan is given serious and sustained teeth. To reiterate: the plan's failure forecloses none of the realistic options open to the US today, and may even reinforce some.


Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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