Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The obstacles in removing Syria's chemical weapons

US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on September 12 to discuss the Syria crisis, an unnamed US official said September 10, AFP reported. The pair spoke over the phone earlier in the day about a Russian proposal to neutralise Syria's chemical weapons stock by putting it under international control.

Sorting out the rising fear of international military action in Syria has moved somewhat convincingly into the diplomatic realm. The Arab League supports Russia's initiative regarding Syria's chemical weapons but the U.N. Security Council has postponed its September 10 meeting on Syria at the request of Russia, which had called for the talks, unnamed council envoys said. No reason for the postponement was given.

Russia’s scheme takes the discussion from talking about an imminent military strike to a potential political backdoor. Both the US Senate and House are reportedly revising, but not abandoning, their plans for a military strike in Syria. US President Barack Obama’s threat to unilaterally attack targets in Syria appears to have had the desired effect of forcing Damascus and its allies in Iran and Russia to seek out a diplomatic resolution to the impasse.

Whether the offer from Russia is genuine, or meant to buy time, Syria’s chemical weapons problem is now effectively being dealt with politically, just as Moscow wished. However, the plan to destroy the weapons will not be a simple task.

The Assad regime has not exactly been transparent with its chemical weapons program in the past and is usually frustratingly tepid in dealing with weapons inspectors. Also, Syria is still officially a warzone with few safe passages available for removing the weapons from of the country and keeping them out of rebel hands.

So if the international community can’t get the weapons out of Syria, they will have to go in and get them. And without a cease-fire, the UN probably won’t risk their personnel moving between cities looking for chemicals if they can’t be protected. Just because both sides may wish for the chemical weapons’ destruction, the chances of miscalculation would still be high.

The inspectors will have no guarantee all the splintered rebel factions would agree to any cease-fire, especially considering the presence of al Qaeda-affiliated groups on the ground. After all, the inspectors who were in Damascus during the recent gas attacks were unable to drive to the scene due to sniper fire from rebel positions, for instance.

On top of this, even with all the intelligence assets focused on Syria, no one is 100 percent certain where all of Syria’s chemical weapons are located. Many will probably be underground now, as the regime has probably reacted to the threat of targeted US strikes, shifting them out of sight. They may even be spread across the country disguised as conventional weaponry. And there is a good chance they could be stored around civilian buildings to deter strikes.

Some reports suggest the constant taking and re-taking of arms depots in Syria could have muddled the stores of chemical weapons multiple times. Conventional and chemical artillery shells look strikingly similar and only purposefully-trained troops would be able to know the difference between them.

In the heat of battle, and with all the inherent confusion of supply lines, it is entirely possible the chemical weapons used in August were not authorised by either the regime high command or the dedicated chemical weapons corps. It is possible artillery groups who fired the shells may not have known they launched chemical weapons at all.

(This would at least explain the panicked calls between the Syrian high command and ground troops which was intercepted by US intelligence. And it would explain why high-explosive shells were reportedly seen landing alongside the gas.)

If these rumours are accurate, then perhaps the regime itself doesn’t even know where they all are. In this scenario, the UN teams will be chasing their tail.

But even before the plan reaches this point, the negotiations are going to take a long time. Putting the idea in front of the UN Security Council will be the first step, but agreeing to what it should say, in a form each veto-member can sign off, will make this an arduous task. Russia and China have already made it next to impossible for the Security Council to pass resolutions on Syria and will likely dilute the new deal as much as they can. There is little chance Moscow or Beijing will agree to the imposition of a cease-fire in any upcoming negotiations.

Any negotiations could last for years, with the exact amount of chemical weapons in Syria never fully being known. The United States is still trying to destroy their own stockpile of chemical weapons safely, and they have been at the task for decades. Even with the significant obstacles, it is important to keep the pressure of the Syrian regime no matter how watered down the results could be.

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