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Explainer: How Practical Is Russia's Syria Chemical-Weapons Proposal?

  • Charles Recknagel

UN chemical-weapons investigators in Damascus last month. How difficult would it be for UN inspectors to assess and destroy Syria's stockpiles?

UN chemical-weapons investigators in Damascus last month. How difficult would it be for UN inspectors to assess and destroy Syria's stockpiles?

Syria says it accepts Russia's proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control and then destroy them. But how practical is it to actually implement Russia's plan?

How important is the fact that Damascus has agreed to Russia's proposal?

Syria's accepting Russia's proposal is a de facto admission that Damascus has chemical weapons -- something Syria has hinted at but never directly admitted before. So Syria's assent on September 10 can be seen as a significant first step toward greater honesty among the world powers and Syria regarding the problem of chemical weapons and how to assure they are not used again.

But actually putting Syria's chemical weapons under UN control and destroying them is much more complicated. No one currently knows with absolute accuracy how many chemical weapons Syria has and where they are stockpiled. Western countries estimate Damascus has produced hundreds of tons of chemical weapons since beginning its program in the 1980s, including mustard blistering agents, and deadly nerve agents such as sarin, tabun, and VX.

Can the UN Security Council agree on how to implement Russia's proposal?

Any resolution would have to bridge sharply different positions over Syria among the five permanent members of the Security Council. Washington, Paris, and London would want to set a short deadline for UN inspectors to secure Syria's stockpiles and begin destroying them. They would also want mention of severe consequences if Damascus dallies.

But Russia and China can be expected to resist any short time frame or other tough conditions they consider overbearing on Damascus.

"Getting everybody to agree to [severe] terms is going to be pretty tough because, before, Russia has prevented such resolutions going forward in the last few months," says Dina Esfandiary, a regional analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "So I wouldn't be surprised if they were to do it again despite the fact they were the ones who [put forward] this suggestion."

Russia, backed by China, already has blocked three previous UN Security Council resolutions condemning Assad's government and threatening it with sanctions. A frustrated Washington said in August it was giving up on trying to work with the Security Council on Syria, because of Russian opposition to blaming Assad for the August 21 chemical attacks outside Damascus. Now, all sides will have to try to work together again.

How difficult would it be for UN inspectors to assess and destroy Syria's stockpiles?

To inventory Syria's chemical-weapons stocks would require on-the-ground inspections of multiple sites around the country, something that poses considerable difficulties in the middle of a war. To then put the stocks under international control and destroy them presents still greater challenges.

Richard Guthrie, a British chemical-weapons expert formerly with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says the inspectors would need to be accompanied by a UN peacekeeping force. "As to who guards them, the inspectors who are normally used under the Chemical Weapons Convention are not military personnel. They can't stand there with machine guns in hand and protect the weapons," he says.

"They are good administrators, they are good observers of things, but it would have to be done in coordination with some kind of UN peacekeeping force -- which would have to be armed guards and they would have to be able to deter any attack on those locations," Guthrie adds. "So, it couldn't be just a small number of people."
Deploying an international force in the midst of Syria's civil war carries its own risks that the force could be dragged into the conflict.

How much of a wild card do Syria's rebel groups represent?

Russia's proposal concerns an agreement with Damascus and makes no mention of Syria's rebel movement, which is made up of very disparate groups. But an agreement only with the Syrian regime may not be enough.

Analyst Esfandiary notes that all of Syria's chemical weapons are currently presumed to be in Damascus's hands. But she says the conflict in the country is highly fluid and it is by no means certain that the weapons will not change hands or even that the government in Syria will change.

"At the moment it is unlikely that the rebels will have any access to these weapons, which means that the deal will have to be struck with Assad," Esfandiary says. "But should such a deal be struck and the process be set in motion, and in the meantime the Assad government falls, then obviously the rebels would have to be brought in and the West would have to work with them in order to continue putting in place this plan and continuing the destruction of the chemical weapons."

One huge wild card is the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front. "Al-Qaeda is, of course, on record as saying that the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction capability is not only necessary but religiously essential from the point of view of the jihad, so there has to be an anxiety about the way groups like that will be prompted to get hold of chemical weapons from the government side, from any stocks they could, and then to use them in the most destructive way they could," says Paul Schulte, a proliferation and disarmament expert with the Carnegie Endowment and King's College, London.

If world powers agree to implement Russia's proposal, does it mean Syria's civil war will still go on, only minus chemical weapons?

Unfortunately, yes. The Russian plan, like the possibility of a U.S.-led military strike it is intended to prevent, is purely about chemical weapons. It is not an effort to find an end to Syria's civil war, but simply to prevent chemical weapons from being used again.
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