Russia pushes Syria WMD plan, but experts warn of difficulty

While Russia's plan for securing Syrian chemical weapons gains traction, experts warn of serious challenges.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers a statement in Moscow, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. The Russian Foreign Minister says Moscow will push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control.

Russia is preparing an "effective, clear and concrete" plan for placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control in exchange for the US shelving plans to launch punishing military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the Syrian government is ready to fully cooperate, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.

The proposal has caught fire largely because it would be a way for President Barack Obama to save face amid US public opposition to another Middle East war, for President Vladimir Putin to put Russia back at the center of diplomatic negotiations, and for Mr. Assad to avoid getting bombed by the US.

Experts warn, however, that the international community is going to face a hard slog in hammering the plan into workable shape. 

For one thing, the logistics of either permanently supervising or physically removing an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical munitions from as many as 60 different locations in an active war zone may be impossible. For another, despite the purr of agreement from the Syrian government about the Russian plan, there could be a tough debate ahead with Damascus over what constitutes "international control."

"Russia has been a proponent of this idea for at least two years, but when we raised it with our Syrian colleagues in the past, they refused because they say they need these weapons to deter outside powers like Israel and Turkey from attacking them,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst who's been a frequent adviser to Mr. Putin in the past. "But now, amid this crisis, we have come back to it.”

Though US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to publicly float the idea at a news conference on Monday, presidents Putin and Obama in fact discussed it in private meetings during the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Mr. Markov says. But it didn't get any traction until Obama realized the strength of opposition to military strikes in Congress, he says.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also confirmed that account, according to Reuters Tuesday.
Despite the promising diplomatic signals and the Syrian foreign minister’s public assent, Markov warns, the Syrian government may not ultimately agree to being completely disarmed of chemical weapons.

"Russia and the US will press for total removal of these weapons from Syria, of course, but the Syrians may have in mind something more like international inspectors ensuring that the weapons are not being used in the civil war... ," Markov says. “There will have to be an intensive discussion about what 'international control' means, and the outcome may not fully satisfy Washington.”

The plan may only be realized if the US and Russia put aside their differences and engage in a joint effort, says Alexei Arbatov, one of Russia's top security experts. It also presupposes a ceasefire since specialists would find it difficult to work amid civil war and constant threat of terrorist attacks. It assumes the full cooperation and protection of Syrian forces as well, he says.

“It's a herculean task to track down and destroy these chemical weapons. It is expensive to transport chemical weapons and it is dangerous to destroy them.... The only way is to take the weapons out, but how can you do that on an active battlefield?” Mr. Arbatov says.

After Mr. Kerry on Monday suggested that Assad might avoid US missile strikes if he handed over "every single bit" of his chemical arsenal to international control, Mr. Lavrov appeared to pounce on Kerry’s remarks. Within hours, Syria’s foreign minister, who was in Moscow for talks, publicly backed the plan, and government officials in Damascus announced support on Tuesday.

"The proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control is not, strictly speaking, a Russian initiative. It has grown out of contacts that we have had with our American colleagues, as well as from yesterday's statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, allowing an opportunity to avoid strikes if the problem is solved," Lavrov said Tuesday, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group and a backer of US military strikes, rejected the Russian proposal, saying it “will lead to more death and destruction of the Syrian people."

"A violation of international law should lead to an international retaliation that is proportional in size," the group was quoted by The Associated Press as saying. "Crimes against humanity cannot be dropped by giving political concessions or by handing over the weapons used in these crimes."

In interviews televised Tuesday, Obama called the Russian idea a "potential breakthrough" and the US Senate delayed a scheduled Wednesday vote on a resolution that would authorize military force.

"We see [the Russian plan and Syria's agreement] as potentially a positive development and we see this as a clear result of the pressure that has been put on Syria,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists Tuesday.

In fact, the proposal has been under discussion for some time. More than a year ago the top Republican on the US Senate's foreign relations panel, Richard Lugar, traveled to Moscow in an unsuccessful effort to persuade Russian officials not to cancel the joint US-Russian program that's been locking down and dismantling former Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons for the past 20 years.

But Mr. Lugar subsequently told journalists that he also discussed with Russian leaders another possible threat reduction program: "The United States and Russia, two great powers, with a lot of experience with chemical weapons, would plan together for a contingency that if the Assad regime falls or there is a general disintegration of order in Syria, we would be prepared as two nations to take over those chemical weapons and destroy them," Lugar was quoted as saying at the time.

The Russians reportedly checked with Damascus, and came back saying the Syrians had explained the weapons were under no threat.

"We were assured a very strict control is exercised over the security of the chemical weapons storage and that there is no danger the situation might fall out of control," Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted by news agencies as saying last August.  

Alexander Golts, a military expert and deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said Russia turned down the opportunity to work with the US on a solution more than a year ago, and the situation on the ground has since gotten much worse.

According to various intelligence estimates, Syria holds around 1,000 tons of chemical weapons distributed among as many as 60 different locations.  Securing them in place would require 30,000 – 40,000 soldiers, amid a raging civil war, Mr. Golts says.

"On the other hand, if the idea is to remove them, it's a logistical nightmare. It would be an immense operation just to extract 1,000 tons of rocks from a war zone like this one. But chemical weapons? They must be made ready, handled with great care, and transported with absolute security,” Golts says.

"It's good that diplomacy is back at center stage. But no one should imagine that this scheme offers a simple solution," he adds.

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