Flash forward to now, and a major part of the Serious Commentary by the President, the Secretary of State, members of Congress, and members of the commentariat is all about Whether we can trust the Russians and Assad, Whether it’s technically feasible to disassemble and dispose of Syria’s stockpiles, Whether Russia and Assad are “stalling” or “playing Obama for time”, and Whether any deal will be sufficiently “verifiable.”
What? Those questions might make sense if the original aim had been to actually disarm Assad of chemical weapons, but that’s definitely not what the administration or, I think, practically anyone was imagining. The concern was about his and others use of the weapons. So on that score the question should not be whether you can implement and verify disarmament in a civil war zone—which doesn’t sound likely, or not in the short run anyway – but rather whether you can verify that he hasn’t undertaken more attacks with chemical weapons. For some scale of attack, that’s obviously feasible, as the events of August 21 show …
So what’s with this worry about Russia and Assad tricking Obama by “stalling” and “playing for time”? Stalling for what purpose? So he can keep carrying out massive chemical weapons attacks while the Security Council negotiates? If his regime is saying “we’ll disarm, accept monitors, and sign the CWC,” does it seem likely that he would then continue to carry out massive gas attacks traceable to his military? If he did this, Obama would be in a better position than ever to get support for punitive strikes. Basically, this reflex “I’m nobody’s fool” reaction misses the point that the Russian proposal and Assad’s apparent acceptance of the approach is already a probable win on the question of continued use of poison gas by the Assad regime.
Former weapons inspectors warned that the process could take a long time to complete — perhaps so long it could continue long after Obama leaves office. “It can be done. You are going to break a lot of crockery in doing it,” former U.N. Iraq weapons inspector David Kay said Tuesday on CNN. “If you try to do it by the book, you won’t get it done in a decade. That’s too long. You need to take this opportunity to test and see if the Syrians and the Russians are real.” Kay also described a scope for such a dismantling operation that sounded unwieldy, particularly in the midst of a civil war. “To establish inventory and positive control, using all the technical devices, seals, automatic cameras and all that you would want to, you’re talking well over 1,000 people,” he added.
The U.S. secretary of state is accompanied by a large delegation of State and Pentagon nonproliferation experts, and a representative of the U.S. intelligence community, in anticipation of detailed, arms control-style talks on how to turn the Russian offer into a concrete disarmament plan. Kerry’s delegation will present the Russians with U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment of the scope of Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure, believed to be among the world’s largest, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. Inspecting, securing and neutralizing them in the midst of a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people will be a stiff challenge, officials acknowledge. “It is doable, but difficult and complicated,” the first official said.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to take Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria, Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief [Amos Yadlin] told Israel’s Channel 2 late last month, “that would be an offer that could stop the attack,” the Times of Israel reported August 31. “It would be a ‘genuine achievement’ for President Obama,” the Times cited Yadlin … “Second, the timeline is important: don’t let the Syrians drag it [out] for years,” he said. “And then a very well defined mechanism: who is going to be on the ground to take care of it. UN forces, NATO forces, Russian forces…It must be a military force which is very professional, well protected, but with determination to complete the job.”
[UN inspectors’ report] will provide a strong circumstantial case — based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples — that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability. “I know they have gotten very rich samples — biomedical and environmental — and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses,” said the Western official. “It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got.” The official, who declined to speak on the record because of the secrecy surrounding the U.N. investigation, could not identify the specific agents detected by the inspector team, but said, “You can conclude from the type of evidence the [identity of the] author.”
American officials said the Syria debate would now unfold largely in Geneva, where the United States wants the talks to focus not only on Syria’s chemical weapons but also on securing munitions like bombs or warheads that are designed for chemical attacks. The officials acknowledged that securing the delivery systems for attacks goes far beyond what Mr. Lavrov has offered or is likely to agree to in Geneva this week … On Wednesday, White House officials refused to set a timeline for any agreement in Geneva or for a subsequent action by the United Nations on a resolution to enforce the deal. The Russians in the meantime have sent the Americans a written proposal on how to handle Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons, but administration officials said it lacked detail on how the stockpiles would be secured, verified and destroyed.
So, Obama’s aim is solely to affirm an international norm. To this end, he already has achieved something important. He has mobilized world attention, and there is now a chance, albeit small, that he might get a process in place that monitors and even destroys Syrian chemical weapons. Almost certainly he has ensured that such weapons won’t be used again by the Assad regime. That’s more than he could have achieved through airstrikes — which are unlikely to have destroyed such weapons.
[W]hy would Bashar al-Assad, a dictator who gasses his people to break a stalemate in a war he and his clan regard as existential and almost certainly cannot win, voluntarily surrender an arsenal he has been holding largely in reserve? Furthermore, Syria’s rationale for possessing chemical weapons the regime does not acknowledge, is to counter Israel’s stockpile of nuclear warheads that the Israelis do not acknowledge. While Syria has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) it now says it wants to join, Israel signed but never ratified the treaty. Israel has bombed Syria three times already this year … The Assads were schooled in a vicious academy of power, yet this initiative almost treats them as naughty boys caught doing something wrong. It is of a piece with last summer’s UN Geneva peace plan, which rests ultimately on the proposition that the Assads will volunteer for early retirement. The Geneva delusion was partly about keeping the Russians in the game. With this initiative, they look to be taking the game over.
Western observers were stunned by Libya’s openness about its programme. Within weeks of a deal, western intelligence agents were allowed into the country and spent hours with Libyan scientists “who were prepared to disclose all aspects of their WMD programmes” … In contrast, weapons inspectors attempting to clear up questions about Syria’s nuclear programme were given the runaround for years. “Syria has not co-operated with the agency since June 2008 in connection with the unresolved issues related to the Deir Ezzour site and the other three locations allegedly functionally related to it,” an IAEA report concluded in November 2010. “As a consequence, the agency has not been able to make progress towards resolving the outstanding issues related to those sites.” … [T]he western notion of transparency, grounded in the Libyan experience, will clash with the Syrian regime’s vision of consistently stalling and manipulating international watchdogs.