Will Syria really hand over its chemical weapons to Russia? That’s a crucial question facing Washington as Russia’s proposal to have the Bashar al-Assad regime do just that continues to make significant headway in terms of international geopolitics.
On Tuesday, Syria fully accepted the proposal. Speaking in Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government would agree to what he termed a plan to “thwart US aggression,” according to The Associated Press.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added that Russia and Syria would now work together to produce a detailed plan of action leading to international control and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons stocks.
Meanwhile, France said it would start a resolution process in the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at a Paris news conference that France – like Russia, a permanent Security Council member – would do this under a section of the UN charter that allows for military enforcement.
This international dance of the foreign ministers occurred after President Obama said on Monday that Russia’s initial proposal could be “potentially a significant breakthrough.” But he added that he remained skeptical that Syria would actually undertake to give up its chemical weapons, and that the US needed to maintain a threat of possible military action to compel the Assad regime to act.
Some US foreign-policy commentary saw Russia’s proposal as a win-win: a way for the United States to avoid military strikes, while helping the Syrian people via elimination of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons threat.
Though there are good reasons to be skeptical of the proposal, if carried through it would have a greater effect on Assad’s arsenal than limited US airstrikes, wrote The New York Times in an editorial.
Plus, “the diplomatic proposal creates at least a pause in the action. It could mean that the United States would not have to go it alone in standing firm against the Syrian regime. And it could open up a broader channel to a political settlement between Mr. Assad and the rebels – the only practical way to end this war,” the Times editorial board wrote.
But others warned the proposal is a trap. Syria has no intention of turning over all its chemical weapons, and Russia does not intend to force it to do so, critics said.
“This is clearly a way to let Obama off the hook politically,” right-leaning columnist Charles Krauthammer said in a Fox News appearance. “The chances of these weapons being eliminated from Syria are less than of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series this year – and they are now mathematically eliminated.”
Nor is it clear how the Russia proposal would be implemented, wrote Yochi Dreazen on Foreign Policy magazine’s "Cable" blog. Syria has “dozens” of chemical weapons sites and could shuttle chemical agents and precursor stocks among them in a way that US intelligence would find difficult to track.
“That, in turn, would mean that Obama would have to effectively take Assad’s word that he’d turned over all of his weapons – an assurance the president would probably be unlikely to trust,” Mr. Dreazen wrote.
Given their lethality, chemical weapons can be highly dangerous to handle – the more so in the midst of a deadly civil war. Who would undertake that job? How would they be destroyed? That is not an easy process: The US is still not finished with the destruction of its own old chemical weapons stocks, decades after they were withdrawn from service and marked for elimination.