Potholes in disarming Assad’s chemical weapons
The Kerry-Lavrov agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons is being hailed as the big broom that will speedily start clearing up the mess but there are several potholes, which could greatly lengthen the process and keep Bashar al Assad safe from US-led military intervention.
The US, France and Britain will meet in Paris tomorrow (Monday) to work on the wording of a resolution for the UN Security Council. It will contain the Kerry-Lavrov framework, a reference to sanctions under Chapter 7 for noncompliance and other related matters.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius will go to Moscow on Thursday for consultations on the text so that it sails through the Security Council. He consulted with the Chinese government during a visit to Beijing today (Sunday).
If all goes as scheduled, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Security Council will be ready to start work inside Syria within 10 days. Several countries may provide personnel, funds and technical help.
The good news is that all the chemical weapons, precursors, components, building materials and delivery rockets will be out of Assad’s hands as soon as international inspectors reach the sites. That would be in November according to the Kerry-Lavrov plan, so President Barack Obama’s goal of dismantling reuse will have been met rapidly.
The main pothole is that nothing can be achieved if Assad refuses to start the process by providing a declaration of his entire chemical arsenal, including all the nooks and crannies of storage sites within a week or soon afterwards. The only pressure point on him is the threat of force but its credibility has receded.
It remains unclear whether Lavrov privately obtained his agreement to do so during the Geneva negotiations with Kerry or has other means of forcing early compliance.
For reasons of international law, the OPCW will be the lead agency implementing the Assad’s chemical disarmament process but it cannot compel him to do anything. It must negotiate each tiny step with him.
Much depends on whether Assad will be sweetness and reason, or buy time thinking Washington will remove him from power or have him sentenced by a war crimes tribunal even if he cooperates later for an orderly exit.
A background briefing attributable only to senior State Department officials yesterday (Saturday) made clear that the plan’s success depends heavily on Assad’s willingness to cooperate immediately. He is also expected to provide security for the international teams that take control of the weapons and accessories.
Replying to a question, a briefer said, “Look. To do this, it’s Russia and the U.S., it’s the international community. But it is first and foremost what Syria has to do.”
European diplomatic sources expect Assad to cooperate because Russia will breathe down his neck, backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions for non-compliance. However, none of the punishments will be automatic and are unlikely to include military strikes because of opposition from Russia. At each step, further Security Council resolutions will be required.
Washington’s only big stick is the threat of use of force, with or without Security Council authorization. But Russian analysts think Moscow sees it as a bluff because it believes the chemical weapons storage sites cannot be secured without numerous boots on the ground or devastating airstrikes that might cause more mayhem and perhaps significant non-combatant casualties.
The OPCW is the secretariat of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which has its own governing body representing 189 member states. The Kerry-Lavrov plan, which comprises a draft decision and two annexes, will go to OPCW for adoption with a request to apply special procedures to ensure speed, forcefulness and stringent verification. Such procedures have never been used before and nobody can offer experienced advice.
There is no certainty that the OPCW can handle such a huge and unprecedented operational task within the very hurried and intense Kerry-Lavrov schedule, in the middle of a civil war that makes protecting weapons sites a very dangerous undertaking.
It has taken 10 years or more in other CWC signatory countries possessing smaller stockpiles stored in central locations and enjoying peaceful conditions, with a government in charge of all the territory.
The legal basis for demanding a declaration of all chemical weapons within a week is unclear. Syria does not become party to the CWC until 14 October 2013, exactly 30 days after depositing its instruments of accession.
Assad’s government said earlier that it would do so within 30 days of entering the CWC, which Kerry wants to short circuit through the special procedures.
In reply to a question, the State Department’s background briefer said, “I think our goal is by Friday, but we’ll see.”
Another curiosity is that the US, France and several European and Arab countries no longer recognize the Assad regime as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Obama said in December 2012: “We’ve made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime.”
Whatever the legalese, Assad is indispensable for the Kerry-Lavrov plan to move further and Russia seems to have accepted responsibility for him. Here is an extract from the background briefing:
“QUESTION: So we cannot say that the Syrians have agreed to this.
“SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No. All we can say is what the Syrians have said publicly, and that is that they will make a declaration that they have — want to accede to the CWC, become a member of OPCW, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
“QUESTION: But no private assurance through the Russians or any other diplomatic channel that the Assad government is prepared to implement this.
“SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No. The only thing I would say to that — and again, you will have to ask the Russians themselves — is that Russia has signed on to the set of responsibilities laid out in these documents. And they are, as are we, accountable to working as hard as we can to make it all real.”
Another pothole may be the time schedule set by the Kerry-Lavrov framework. Replying to a question, a briefer said the framework sets no deadlines. “It is not a schedule, it is not a deadline. They are targets, goals, timeframes, as you wish.”
“QUESTION: Are they realistic goals?
“SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, that was an important part of the technical discussions, and we went back and forth with our Russian colleagues. They agree that this is ambitious. We believe it is possible. I think the Russians are a little less ready to say it is possible. But they have agreed that this is what we will seek to do.
“SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So the best way I summarize this whole thing, this is very, very difficult. Very, very difficult. But it is doable.”