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Explainer: What Comes Next In Syria Chemical Weapons Deal?

  • Charles Recknagel

UN experts, wearing gas masks, inspect one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb last month.

UN experts, wearing gas masks, inspect one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb last month.

A deal that looks acceptable to all five world powers on the UN Security Council regarding Syria’s chemical weapons has finally emerged after weeks of negotiations and could be voted on as soon as September 27.

But implementing the resolution demanding Syria give up all of its chemical weapons for destruction could prove more complicated than agreeing upon it. Here are five things to consider.

How enforceable is the deal?

The draft resolution now before the Security Council reportedly sets several clear tasks which will be accompanied by deadlines. Damascus must declare what chemical weapons it has, in what quantities, and where they are located. Next, equipment for producing chemical weapons must be destroyed. Then, all of Syria's chemical weapons materiel must be completely eliminated, likely by the first half of 2014.

But what is missing from the deal is the immediate threat of punishment if Damascus does not prove fully cooperative.

Instead, according to news agencies, the deal would require the UN Security Council to pass a second resolution before it could impose any punitive sanctions or military pressure on Damascus to comply. In essence, that means Syria's cooperation would be completely voluntary. But whether Syria is truly ready to give up all of its chemical arms when it is fighting a civil war is unknown.

According to Heiko Wimmin, a Syria expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, if Syria does not cooperate, the Security Council could soon find itself back to the same arguments it had before it agreed on the current draft resolution.

"If [cooperation] doesn't happen, then we may very well in a few months be in a position where one side, the Americans, say 'we are now absolutely convinced that this regime is actively trying to sabotage this process,'" he says. "And [then] we have the Russians saying 'this is absolutely untrue, they have done everything they could but the situation does not allow this to succeed.'"

If so, that raises real questions of whether a second resolution could ever be passed.

If the current deal is not enforceable, will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comply?

That is a concern which Washington frequently voiced but then waived in hopes of getting the present UN Security Council resolution.

Moscow argues Syria will cooperate because, on September 14, Damascus joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires members to destroy their chemical-weapon stockpiles.

Syria joined after U.S. threats of military strikes to punish Damascus for the August 21 chemical weapon attacks that killed hundreds in several towns of the Ghuta region near Damascus.

But some analysts note that, if the regime had no moral compunctions against using chemical weapons, it could see little reason to now give all of them up -- particularly after seeing how effective even a small usage of them can be.

"It's several billion dollars worth of military goods that will be taken away from [Assad] if he complies completely, but there is always the possibility that small quantities might be held back because, we are not talking now about militarily significant quantities in tons," says Paul Shulte, a proliferation and disarmament expert with the Carnegie Endowment and King's College in London. "It is apparent that relatively small quantities like those used in the Ghuta attack have a disproportionate effect."

How has Damascus reacted to the deal?

When Moscow and Washington reached their framework deal earlier this month to require Damascus to give up its chemical weapons to avoid U.S.-led strikes, Syria reacted enthusiastically. National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar called the agreement a "victory for Syria, achieved thanks to our Russian friends."

Assad himself later said he personally saw "no obstacles" to the plan. But he added, "there is always the possibility that the terrorists will obstruct the work of the experts by preventing them from accessing certain places."

The regime has yet to comment officially on the draft resolution that is now before the UN Security Council.

How has the Syrian opposition reacted?

The Syrian opposition is very disunited but it appears certain to remain almost unanimous in its dislike of the whole chemical-weapons initiative.

Reacting to the original framework accord by Moscow and Washington, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition warned that the Assad regime has a long record of breaking agreements. The Turkey-based group also said any deal would have to be strictly enforceable to be effective.

Within Syria, the Free Syrian Army was equally dismissive. The head of the group's military council, Brigadier General Salim Idris, said the initiative "does not interest us."

Both groups had hoped for U.S.-led military strikes against the Assad regime to punish it for using chemical weapons and, in the process, weaken its military strength.

With the opposition so negative, an enormous amount of diplomacy now must be done to ensure rebel groups do not find it in their interest to sabotage the deal in hopes of still getting Western military intervention. But that diplomatic job is complicated by the fact that the fastest rising opposition groups in Syria appear to be Islamist groups that have few or no ties to Western powers.

How much of a wild card are Syria's Islamist rebel groups?

Earlier this month, Abdelaziz Salame, the highest political leader of one of the biggest Islamist groups, the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, issued a statement online where he claimed to speak for 13 different rebel factions. The statement rejected Western strategy in Syria, rejected the exiled opposition, and said all military and civilian forces should unify their ranks in an "Islamic framework."

Charles Lister, a Syria expert at Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center, described the 13 groups who signed the statement as "Syria’s most sizable and powerful insurgent organizations." They include the Al-Nusra Front, which has links to Al-Qaeda.

The 13 groups together are believed to control at least tens of thousands of fighters and, if the coalition holds, could mean Western powers would have no influence over what happens on the ground over a large part of the north as well as parts of Homs and Damascus.

If Islamist groups find it in their strategic interest to hijack chemical weapons for themselves or to sabotage the UN Security Council accord, world powers may yet find themselves being drawn into the Syrian conflict to safeguard the chemical weapons destruction effort.

Entering the Syrian conflict is something that, so far, all the world powers have sought hard to avoid.
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