September 14, 2013 6:10 pm

Syria crisis: Realpolitik is winner in US-Russia weapons agreement

Syrian disarmament plan sees Moscow and Washington compromise
US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, walk with the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, center, into a meeting at the United Nations offices in Geneva©AP

Who has got the better of whom in the negotiations between the US and Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons?

Poring over the text of the agreement signed by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, there would appear to be advantages for both the Kremlin and the White House in the deal that has been done.

On the one hand, there is a clear victory for the Russian side on one point. Its Syrian ally is being told to hand over its chemical weapons for destruction or removal within nine months. But the pact does not threaten Syria with military action if it fails to comply.

The US and Russia agree that their joint plan will be enshrined in a forthcoming UN Security Council resolution. But the US has accepted Russia’s demand that the resolution will not authorise military action by world powers if the Assad regime obstructs the operation to secure its chemical stockpile. It merely commits to another Security Council discussion.

On the other hand, there are two key wins for the Barack Obama administration. First, the US has not been forced to take its threat of military action against Syria off the table. At a press conference in Geneva, Mr Kerry reiterated that President Obama reserved the right to act to protect US interests if he saw fit. “And, if diplomacy fails,” Mr Obama said later, “the United States remains prepared to act.”

Secondly, what will have surprised many diplomats is the ambition and detail of the plan that Russia has agreed to. It is structured around a series of deadlines which will allow the world to judge whether it is being adhered to or not.

Bashar al-Assad must provide an inventory of his chemical weapon stocks within seven days. He must allow the destruction of those stocks by the middle of next year. He must also give the world’s chemical weapons watchdog and UN “the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria.”

The US believes these deadlines make it hard for the Assad regime to obstruct progress. Western diplomats will also argue that by signing up to such a detailed agreement, Russia is putting its credibility on the line – and that it cannot allow the Assad regime to flout an agreement to which the Kremlin has put its name.

Still there will be at least three reservations on many minds.

First, how will the outside world know that Mr Assad is telling the truth when he publishes his inventory?

The US is certain to look at Mr Assad’s declaration of his chemical assets very sceptically. But it may not be easy for the Assad regime to hide the truth.

There are only two groups of people that have the experience and skills to do an operation like this and they are the US military and the Russian military

- Aaron David Miller, Wilson Center

One of the remarkable developments of the last three days in Geneva is that the US has been sharing intelligence information about the stockpile for the first time with Russia. The White House and Kremlin now have a much more detailed picture of what the regime has. Both the US and Russia have established, for example, that Syria has around 1000 metric tons of chemical stocks.

Secondly, how difficult will it be for the UN and international bodies to complete such an ambitious plan in the midst of a civil war?

The scale is certainly daunting. Syria is thought to have the third largest chemical weapons programme in the world. Finding enough experts to secure and destroy the stockpile will be challenging.

“There are only two groups of people that have the experience and skills to do an operation like this and they are the US military and the Russian military,” says Aaron David Miller, a former state department official now at the Wilson Center.

That said, Mr Kerry was keen to emphasise on Saturday that the deadline for the destruction of the stockpile is achievable because the Assad regime has been continually moving its chemical weapons into areas that are not affected by the conflict.

“These weapons are in areas of regime control predominantly,” he said, suggesting that the Assad regime should have no difficulty providing access to them.

Finally, are we not going to see the Assad regime obstructing the inspections on the ground?

Many will say this is almost certain. UN inspectors investigating the August 21 chemical attack in Damascus were shot at as they approached the scene. The regime could easily instigate a repeat of such events, say diplomats, leading to debate over whether the Assad regime is culpable or not.

The Assad regime will also want to argue that opposition rebels must be questioned over their alleged holdings of chemical stocks – something that will prove difficult if not impossible for the UN to achieve.

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