On Syria, the language of force keeps US and Russia far apart

Despite a rough agreement to begin dismantling Syria's chemical weapons, Security Council negotiations are tied up over whether to threaten military strikes.

Jason DeCrow/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands after conducting a bilateral meeting during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

Diplomats from Russia and the United States are struggling to agree on a UN Security Council resolution to begin the process of dismantling Syria's chemical weapon arsenal, amid fundamental differences over the nature of the Syrian war and ensuring the Syrian regime fulfills its pledges.

The dispute hinges on whether or not to threaten military strikes if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fails to deliver on his promise to hand over all his chemical weapons within a year. The US and other Western countries want the Security Council resolution to include mention of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which provides authorization for the use of sanctions or military force.

Moscow, however, argues that the Syrians have so far complied with all demands made upon it, and that threats should only be discussed later, if and when all other options have been exhausted.

"Unfortunately it's necessary to note that in contacts with the Americans, things are not going so smoothly,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian lawmakers Tuesday. “They are not quite going in the direction they should.”

The proposal for international control of Syrian chemical weapons was initially floated by the US, then quickly embraced by Russia, as US President Barack Obama backed down from his “red line” rhetoric in the wake of a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb.

The diplomatic logjam stems primarily from the position that most Western and Arab countries are taking, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal: “[For them,] the basic problem in Syria has a name: Bashar al-Assad.”

"For Russians, that is not the case. Russia sees the removal of Assad, at least without a lot of careful preparation, as leading to the collapse of central government in Syria, and the spread of instability around the region,” Mr. Lukyanov says.  “Moscow very strongly suspects that this talk of Chapter 7 means that Western countries have not abandoned their central idea, which is to use force to effect regime change in Syria.”

Moscow sees a distinct change of tone in the West over the past week since a Sept. 14 meeting in Geneva between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry. According to Moscow, the agreement between Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry stipulated that the Security Council resolution would make no mention of Chapter 7.

But in recent days France — a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, like Russia and the US — and the US have demanded a resolution that includes tough penalties. President Obama told the UN General Assembly Tuesday that the resolution must stipulate consequences if Assad fails to keep his commitments.

“If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws," Mr. Obama said.

Even more worrisome for Moscow, Obama issued what sounded to Russia like a call for regime change in Syria, even though he has refrained from such statements in recent months.

"A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country. The notion that Syria can somehow return to a pre-war status quo is a fantasy. It's time for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad's rule will lead directly to the outcome that they fear: an increasingly violent space for extremists to operate," Obama said.

One problem for the Russians is that the agreement reached between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov in Geneva does mention the possibility of Chapter 7 measures if Assad fails to deliver on his pledges.

"The United States and the Russian Federation concur that [the forthcoming] UN Security Council resolution should provide for review on a regular basis the implementation in Syria. . . and in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter," the agreement says.

As has happened before, however, the language of the deal may be just vague enough to support both Russian and American versions about what was decided.

In a statement posted Wednesday on the Russian Foreign Ministry website, Lavrov was quoted as being asked specifically about the American insistence on Chapter 7 consequences, saying only: “We are working within the framework of what was agreed on in Geneva.”

The Russians insist that means the prospect of punishing Assad may arise later, and would require a new Security Council resolution — which Russia could veto. The US and its allies say the explicit threat of penalties should be there from the start.

"For us it's impossible to agree to any Chapter 7 solutions. The US knows that," says Vladimir Yevseyev, a Middle East expert with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

The key Russian fear, he says, is that things will go wrong as teams of experts from the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fan out across war-torn Syria to try and locate, count and remove the chemical arsenal. Assad has been given one year to hand over an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical munitions, but that's probably impossible, Russian experts say.

They point out that both Russia and the US joined the chemical weapons convention almost two decades ago, and both countries have yet to complete the task of eliminating their stockpiles, even after being granted repeated deadline extensions by the OPCW.

Speaking last week, President Vladimir Putin also appeared to tamp down expectations that Russia could control Assad or make him comply fully.

"Whether we will manage to convince Assad or not, I don’t know. So far it looks as though Syria has fully agreed to our proposal and is ready to act according to the plan that the international community is putting together," Mr. Putin said. "Will we succeed in taking the process through to completion? I cannot give a 100 percent guarantee."

The message is that Russia will try and exert all its influence to make the deal work, but it will never agree to a Security Council resolution that authorizes military action against Assad, Russian experts say.

"Russia may make many compromises. It's even possible that we would agree to transport Syrian chemical weapons for destruction on Russian territory. After all, we have good facilities for that here," Mr. Yevseyev says. "But don't mention any Chapter 7 solutions, at least not the use of force, because Russia is not going to go along with that.”

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