Is Syria backtracking on chemical weapons pledge?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with Russian state TV that he would not turn over chemical weapons unless the US stops threatening to attack him and agrees to cease arms shipments to Syrian rebels.

Larry Downing/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (r.) during a press conference before their meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria, in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. Kerry and his team have opened two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts in Geneva.

Is Syria already backtracking on its pledge to turn its chemical weapons over to the international community for destruction?

That question arises because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with Russian state TV that he would not proceed with the plan unless the United States stops threatening to attack him and agrees to cease arms shipments to Syrian rebels.

“Then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized,” Mr. Assad said.

The US is highly unlikely to agree to either of those conditions. Indeed, US officials say that the threat of US munitions is what is forcing Assad to act in the first place. The US sees its arming of rebels as a separate issue from Assad’s alleged gassing of his own citizens.

Assad also said that Syria has agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and will submit information on its chemical arsenal 30 days after its accession to the pact, as the rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons allow.

That looks like stalling to the US. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday, made it clear the White House is envisioning a faster handover process.

“This is not a game,” Secretary Kerry said.

To some extent, Assad’s complications were expected. US officials do not expect Syrian chemical-weapons disarmament to proceed without diplomatic difficulties.

In that context, the Syrian demands are Assad’s “ransom note,” in the words of Washington Post Wonkblog editor Ezra Klein. The Syrian leader has made clear that in his view, just not bombing him is not enough; the US also needs to stop shipping light arms and ammunition to the rebels.

“That means the real cost of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons is watching him crush the opposition and retain power,” Mr. Klein writes.

In addition, the secretive military unit that controls Syria’s chemical weapons has begun dispersing them to as many as 50 sites to make it harder for the US to track them, The Wall Street Journal reports Friday.

US officials say this dispersal could complicate any bombing campaign, according to the Journal.

“It also raises questions about implementation of a Russian proposal that calls for the regime to surrender control of its stockpile,” write the Journal’s Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Nour Malas.

It’s possible that Syria is not in control of its destiny on this issue, however. Without Russian arms, the Assad regime could not keep fighting the rebels. That means Moscow has considerable leverage to force a deal if it wants.

Thus the US believes that at the moment, the outcome of Kerry-Lavrov talks will have much more influence on the course of events than an Assad TV interview.

At time of writing, it was not clear what that outcome will be. One possible major difference between the foreign ministers surfaced at their Thursday press conference: Kerry, reflecting US policy, called for Syrian chemical-weapons disarmament to be treated as an exceptional case that needs to move as fast as possible, outside existing United Nations rules.

“We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved,” Kerry said.

Mr. Lavrov seemed to contradict this, saying that any dismantlement process must proceed in “strict compliance” with the rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Those rules allow for the 30-day window to submit arsenal documentation.

Assad’s agreement to sign the Chemical Weapons treaty is a welcome prospect, from the US view.

“But the positive development coincided with a sinking realization among US officials that Syria’s application to the Chemical Weapons Convention offers President Bashar al-Assad a range of opportunities to delay the removal of the unconventional arms from his country,” writes John Hudson of Foreign Policy magazine’s "Cable" blog.

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