What to read on the Russian proposal for Syria’s chemical weapons

Roundup of articles and analysis on the Russian proposal for Syrian disarmament. Other suggestions welcome.


[O]ne year ago Mr. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at a Group of 20 summit in Mexico and talked about the idea of Syria turning over its chemical weapons supply to international control, an administration official said. The two leaders couldn’t strike a deal. Over the past year, Obama administration officials and their Russian counterparts have discussed ways to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons. In April, Mr. Kerry made his first trip to Moscow as secretary of state and took part in a dinner with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that lasted until 2:30 a.m. They discussed a model for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, much as Libya agreed to give up its nuclear program a decade ago, the administration official said.


[Obama] administration officials said they were swayed by the level of detail in the Russian proposal, which grew out of an impromptu conversation between Mr. Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin on the sidelines of a summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. “The Lavrov statement was quite comprehensive,” a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Frankly, it exceeded expectations in the level of detail it went into.” On Capitol Hill, where opposition to a strike was hardening, senators emerged from lunchtime meetings with Mr. Obama optimistic that Congress could shift from a resolution authorizing force to one that would give diplomacy more time.

Yochi Dreazen (FP):

The decades-long U.S. push to eliminate its own chemical weapons stockpiles illustrates the tough road ahead if Washington and Damascus come to a deal. The Army organization responsible for destroying America’s massive quantities of munitions says the effort will take two years longer than initially planned and cost $2 billion more than its last estimate. The delay means an effort that got underway in the 1990s will continue until roughly 2023 and ultimately cost approximately $35 billion …

Libya, the most recent country to embark on a chemical weapon destruction effort, offers another cautionary tale. Tripoli declared its possession of the weapons in January 2004 and voluntarily promised to get rid of them. In November 2011, the Libyan government abruptly declared that it had found a “previously undeclared chemical weapons stockpile” that included several hundred munitions loaded with mustard gas. The destruction of those weapons was halted because of a technical malfunction at the disposal facility and is still not complete. Nine years after vowing to get rid of its weapons, Libya has destroyed barely half of its total mustard gas stockpile and just 40% of its stores of chemical weapons precursor elements.


Syria would first have to provide specifics about all aspects of its chemical weapons program. But even that step would require negotiation to determine exactly what should be declared and whether certain systems would be covered, because many delivery systems for chemical weapons — including artillery, mortars and multiple-rocket launchers — can also fire conventional weapons … A central issue is the question of accounting for the specific rockets used in the attack that the United States said had killed more than 1,400 people last month. Apparently newly made and never seen before, they have so far proved to be untraceable to a particular factory or chemical-productions plant, and Syria insists that it neither made nor fired the weapons. Some military experts, therefore, said they foresaw a flaw in any accord: If the rockets used in the highly publicized attack are not declared, then the international proposal will exclude the very weapons that prompted Mr. Obama to call for a military strike on Syria.

Washington Post:

Assuming that the inspections get off the ground, a first order of business would be conducting an exhaustive inventory to ensure that all chemical munitions are accounted for. With solid numbers in hand, U.N. officials would probably seek to consolidate the arsenal into the lowest possible number of storage sites. Zanders, the arms-control expert, suggested that the weapons could be best stored near the port city of Tartus, where Russia maintains a naval base. Zanders also argued for heavy involvement not only of Russia but also of Iran, another close Assad ally. Both countries are signatories to the treaty on chemical arms control, and he said their presence, despite Western suspicions, could help ensure Syria’s cooperation.

Julian Borger (Guardian):

Syria is thought to have up to 40 sites where either chemical weapons or precursors for mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin and possibly VX are stored. As the civil war has intensified it is possible that the weapons have been dispersed even further. Elleman said there were some reports that the binary precursors for nerve agents were being mixed in the field by the military units responsible for them. That would complicate any accounting and verification exercise – and make their removal and destruction a logistical nightmare.

“It could be done but if you are going to try to transport the weapons there would be all sorts of practicalities,” said Richard Guthrie, a British expert on chemical and biological warfare. “You would have to put UN troops in and feed and water them, and protect them. If you move these weapons, they could leak. If you destroy them in situ, it depends where they are. You could create a buffer zone around them, but these weapons are likely to be in military bases, and is the regime going to agree that nothing can happen in a 10km radius including those bases?”

Jean Pascal Zanders and Ralf Trapp (The Trench) via Brian Whitaker:

No legal framework exists to organise the type of activity that is being proposed for Syria. It may require a foundational document in the form of a UN Resolution (General Assembly or Security Council), similar to UNGA Resolution 37/98D (13 December 1982), which, building on the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use in warfare of chemical and biological weapons (CBW), gave the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) the authority to launch an investigation into alleged violations of the Protocol with the help of national experts. Its application during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war led to the creation of the UN Secretary-General’s Investigative Mechanism, which was activated in March 2013 with regard to the Syrian civil war …

Secure the CW in as few places as possible: for reasons of security and safety, as well as reducing the logistics to destroy them, CW should be moved to the lowest possible number of storage sites. An idea to concentrate them all at or near Tartus where Russia still maintains important naval infrastructure should be considered seriously from a cost-benefit angle. Russia may have to allow multinational personnel or observers to the area in order to ensure that the international community remains convinced of the full integrity of the proposed arrangements …

Ask countries with mobile chemical waste or CW destruction technology immediately to see which (types of) installations are available at short notice and under which circumstances they could be deployed to Syria. Such installations are available in Germany, Japan and the USA, and probably in a number of other states too …

The proposed operations will be complex, costly and time-consuming. However, they are technologically and humanly possible, provided all energy of the international community can be directed towards problem-solving rather than raising all kinds of theoretical or conceptual problems.

Jeffrey Lewis (FP):

We have an opportunity here, if the Obama administration can think beyond the next off-the-cuff sentence. The president should announce a dual-track policy: He will accept Syria’s offer to negotiate a verifiable renunciation of Syria’s WMD programs, while at the same time seeking authorization from Congress in response to the massacre at Ghouta. As commander-in-chief, he can hold strikes in abeyance, giving the diplomatic track with Syria and the United Nations enough time to succeed. If negotiations collapse, the United States will have forces in place and legal authorization for a prompt effort to degrade Syria’s capabilities and punish the Assad regime. Operation Steadfast Caucus might not be a total goat rodeo after all … And, of course, it might actually work. I’ve posted a slightly longer discussion of the modalities at ArmsControlWonk.com, but the outlines of an agreement are relatively clear: Syria would sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and publicly state that the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical weapons in internal conflicts. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria would be obligated to declare its chemical weapons holdings within 30 days and destroy them within 10 years. The United States should insist that Syria accept an expedited schedule under the auspices of an international team that would help secure and remove Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and precursors.

The mechanics are not impossible, although the work of inspectors will be slowed by the security situation. It would probably take about two months for technical personnel to begin their activities. In 1991, the United Nations was able to commence its first chemical weapons inspection in Iraq about two months after Iraq accepted U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. Similarly, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has an inspectorate of about 200 personnel, was on the ground in Libya overseeing the destruction of chemical agents about two months after Muammar al-Qaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction in December 2003 …

If Assad surrenders the larger portion of his chemical weapons stockpile and refrains from further large-scale gas attacks, that outcome is far preferable to what we might achieve through force alone — to say nothing of what happens if the president suffers a humiliation at the hands of Congress. If the deal completely collapses in six months or a year, the president will still be in a better position than he is today.

Jeffrey Goldberg (Bloomberg):

Here are a few bad things: All Assad has to do to forever stave off a punitive strike is to keep promising that he’s in the middle of giving up his chemical weapons. (No one, by the way, has addressed the fate of his biological weapons.) This is a process that could go on for months, or even years. Yes, that’s right — we might be reading stories soon about United Nations weapons inspectors roaming Syria (a war zone, it should be noted) in a hunt for missing WMD. There are hundreds of tons of chemical munitions in Syria, and very few people think Assad would part with all of them. Why would he? Chemical weapons are a major deterrent to those outside Syria who seek his demise … And if Putin and Kerry have indeed constructed, intentionally or not, an offramp for Obama, Assad can continue — with real impunity now — to slaughter civilians without foreign interference. He may be Hitler, as administration officials and their surrogates keep suggesting, but a Hitler we’re content to see remain in power. The opposition in Syria will see all of this as a betrayal, and could become further radicalized as a result.

Ivo Daalder (FT):

But the details will matter. Getting international inspectors into Syria will require either massive armed protection or an end to the raging conflict – neither of which is likely any time soon. And, so long as the weapons remain under the regime’s control, their use remains a distinct possibility. Of course, the same would be true following the kind of limited strike the administration has contemplated … Nevertheless, Moscow’s idea is worth pursuing. Persuading Russia to co-operate in getting rid of Syrian chemical weapons is in everyone’s interest. If the end result is a Syria with no chemical weapons, the world will be better off. We need to examine the details of the plan, and to establish a very clear timeline – days or weeks, not months – to gaining Damascus’ full agreement on such a plan.

Jonathan Freedland (Guardian):

Amid the current relief, two points are worth stressing. First, though hardcore anti-interventionists will not be keen to admit it, this breakthrough – if that’s what it proves to be – only came about because of the threat of US force. It will be very hard to pretend that Assad would have agreed to such a move under any other circumstances; Russia did not propose it until it suspected American missiles were on the way. For all the opposition Obama’s threatened action has generated at home and abroad, that fact surely deserves to be recognised.

Second, there is no reason this initiative should end with the decommissioning of chemical weapons. If the US and Russia can make this scheme work, why can’t they work together not just to prevent killing by poison gas but on a diplomatic solution that will end all the killing in Syria? If Iran is, even tacitly, brought into the circle on this process, why not keep that country involved in the wider political negotiation that is surely the only way this conflict will ever end?

 Cheryl Rofer (Nuclear Diner):

If Russia and the United States have been coordinating, they may already have worked out elements of this. Both have specialists in handling chemical warfare agents, who would be called upon for this duty. Ground units would be needed to secure the sites.

There will be attempts to reconcile what is found on the ground with what Assad has declared. The numbers will not match. The size of the discrepancy will determine what actions are taken next; too large will slow things down in a search for reasons, while a small discrepancy can be expected. The closest disposal facilities are in Russia. Methods of transporting the stocks of munitions and agents would have to be worked out. Russia and the United States, which has provided funding for the Russian facility, may be discussing this already.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s