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Hope for Syria?

Tags: Middle East , Obama , Putin , United Nations , Nonproliferation

Saunders, Paul J.

September 17, 2013

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A number of tough challenges lay ahead in implementing the US-Russia agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons. Even if the weapons are successfully destroyed, though, notes Paul Saunders, the civil war is likely to continue.

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The agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons that the United States and Russia announced on September 14 is the first positive development in international diplomacy surrounding Syria’s civil war for quite some time. Though the deal must still be formalized in a United Nations Security Council Resolution—and then implemented in a war zone—it provides real if highly tenuous grounds for optimism that Washington and Moscow may be able to subordinate their differences to a common goal in dealing with a major international security problem. Nevertheless, profound obstacles remain both in securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons and in pursuing a negotiated end to the fighting.

Numerous Obstacles

First are the technical obstacles described widely in many news reports. Inspectors must travel to Syria while its civil war is underway and visit over 40 sites identified as components of the country’s chemical weapons complex, searching for weapons, precursor chemicals, missiles and bombs suitable for dispersing chemicals, production facilities, and other items. Taking into account the limited number of experts, the time required to assemble them, and the logistical and security challenges of working in Syria, this will be no easy task. Safely transporting and ultimately destroying nerve gas and other toxic chemicals will likewise be difficult, particularly in the nine months allotted. It has taken the United States and Russia years destroying their own chemical arsenals.

Second are questions of compliance. Will the Syrian government cooperate consistently until the final weapon is destroyed? No one knows the answer to this. Even if leaders in Damascus begin the process intending to complete it, which many Americans consider doubtful, what if conditions on the ground change and President Bashar al-Assad and others fear imminent defeat on the battlefield? Conversely, what if Assad plans simply to use the process as a way to delay US military action and tie the UN Security Council in knots, as Saddam Hussein did in the past?

Checkpoint at the edge of Damascus. (© Elizabeth Arrott, VOA)
Checkpoint at the edge of Damascus. (© Elizabeth Arrott, VOA)
Third are the diplomatic challenges. Will the United States and Russia be able to agree on the text of a UN Security Council Resolution? So far, Washington and Moscow both seem prepared to accept a resolution with clear deadlines and a reference to potential consequences for noncompliance to be determined in a future resolution. The United States conceded by not insisting that the resolution authorize military action in the event of noncompliance (Russia did not want any automatic trigger), and Russia conceded by accepting that a resolution on noncompliance would be under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could permit the use of force. But many details remain to be worked out. Will US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power be able to handle this high-profile assignment after dismissing the Security Council as a venue for managing Syria?

Fourth are political forces, both international and domestic. Will the United States and Russia sustain their uneasy collaboration as conditions evolve? The greatest test would be in the event of Syria’s noncompliance with a UN Resolution; if Washington presses for a new resolution authorizing force, Moscow is likely to resist—with Beijing’s support. President Barack Obama has publicly asserted US willingness to attack Syria unilaterally and without a UN resolution if this happens, but how would Vladimir Putin react to that? This issue—America’s use of force in cases other than self-defense without a Security Council resolution—is perhaps the greatest single disagreement between the United States and Russia in the post–Cold War period.

Domestic Opposition

Domestically, even now President Obama faces widespread opposition to US military action in Syria. After his September 10 speech, a CNN survey of Americans who planned to watch it found that 60% did not see a US national interest in becoming involved in Syria’s civil war, 58% thought an attack would not achieve US goals, and 50% did not believe that Mr. Obama made a convincing case. And Democrats participating in the survey outnumbered Republicans by almost two-to-one. At this point, it appears unlikely that the president will have significantly more support in the future if Assad is uncooperative.

Finally, elapsing time and new developments in Syria or elsewhere may produce unexpected trouble. For example, sharp new US-Russian disagreements on other issues—such as Russia’s domestic governance—could lead to a breakdown in trust and cooperation. A major terrorist attack at the Sochi Olympics, now just a few months away, could divert international attention from Syria, as could heightened violence in Egypt or other nations in the Middle East. Proof that Syrian opposition groups or al-Qaeda-linked terrorists outside Syria possess chemical weapons could also have unpredictable consequences.

Needless to say, however, even if the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons evolves over the next several months, fighting in the country is likely to persist. In fact, according to some reports, combat between regime forces and rebels only intensified during the US-Russian talks in Geneva. With this in mind, even if the chemical weapons deal creates a basis for renewed negotiations between Washington and Moscow, it is far from certain that the parties to the conflict will be prepared to participate seriously in the process. As a result, Syria’s fate is likely to preoccupy President Obama and his top national security advisors for some time to come.

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