The Syrian government of President Bashar Assad has agreed to a request by Russia to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile to international control (and eventual destruction) in order to prevent a military strike led by the United States. After “fruitful” talks in Moscow between foreign ministers Walid Moallem of Syria and Sergey Lavrov of Russia, Damascus said the proposal would “stop the Syrian bloodshed and prevent a war.”
Western nations, including the United States, Great Britain and France, as well as Israel, have reacted with extreme caution to the Russian-Syrian proposal, but have shown a willingness to at least cooperate with Moscow in this effort. Two of Syria’s most prominent other allies, China and Iran, have also welcomed the Russian gambit. U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration strongly believes that Assad’s military used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 Syrians last month, including hundreds of children, has threatened to strike Syria militarily for having crossed a “red line,” suggesting the Damascus regime has committed grave war crimes.
For the record, Assad and other Syrian officials have denied that they used chemical weapons. Consequently, there is no guarantee that even after all the details of Syria’s handover of chemical weapons are worked out, Assad and his allies won’t have the ingredients to make more of the dreaded weapons. But at this point, the proposal by Moscow presents a slight glimmer of hope that Syria will be dissuaded from using such forbidden weapons in its civil war that has now lasted well over two years at a cost of more than 100,000 lives.
"It's certainly a positive development when the Russians and Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons," Obama told CNN Monday evening, while adding that the threat to attack Syria has not been taken off the table. Leading Republican John McCain, who supports an attack on Syria, while expressing his skepticism that Assad will really hand over all his weapons, nonetheless sees the Russian move as a hopeful step. "I'm very, very skeptical," McCain said, according to CNN. "But the fact is, you can't pass up this opportunity -- if it is one."
Jon Wolfsthal, an expert on nuclear proliferation and the deputy director at the James C. Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told International Business Times that any agreement with Syria to hand over its chemical weapons would indeed be viewed very skeptically and would have to have a highly intrusive inspection and challenge process. “However, as the goal of U.S. policy is to prevent the further use of [chemical weapons] by the regime, an agreement with tough inspections could be very effective, even if some small caches of material remain,” Wolfstahl said. “But Bashar al-Assad is deterred from using them -- either for fear of violating his commitment or facing a renewed threat of military attack by the United States.”
However, as United Nations weapons inspectors discovered in Iraq in the early 1990s, such an invasive search for weapons could take years, as The Week pointed out. Indeed, the United States itself still has not entirely disposed of its own tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons 16 years after ratifying the global Chemical Weapons Convention.
Moreover, such foreign inspectors in Syria would have do perform their delicate and dangerous work amidst a brutal and chaotic civil war that is ravaging the country -- seemingly with no end in sight. "This [proposed handover of weapons] is a nice idea but tough to achieve," an American government official told Reuters. "You're in the middle of a brutal civil war where the Syrian regime is massacring its own people. Does anyone think they're going to suddenly stop the killing to allow inspectors to secure and destroy all the chemical weapons?"
Further complicating this scenario is the fact that no one outside the Damascus inner circle even knows the full magnitude of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal (indeed, in an interview with the PBS network in the U.S., Assad did not even admit his regime even had any such weapons). Dilshod Achilov, assistant professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, told IBTimes that, in order to save his regime, Assad must avoid a U.S.-led military intervention at all costs and that he really has no option but to abide by the Russian offer. “However, given that the Assad regime is notorious for being highly deceptive and misleading, I would not be surprised if Assad is planning to stash away some of the chemical warheads as ‘an insurance policy’ for uncertain future,” he said. “I am sure he is already making secret contingency plans in that respect.”
Dr. Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science and international studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., told IBTimes that the “million-dollar question” is whether Syria will still own sufficient ingredients to manufacture chemical weapons even after surrendering their current stockpile.
“It is possible for the Syrian government to say they will comply and use that as a distraction or diversion tactic,” she said. “Moreover, [even] if this plan is put into place it may be hard to verify whether all of the weapons are turned over. Whether in fact the world can verify that they have complied depends in part on the agreement and how it is carried out (i.e. the logistics).” Thus, while Syria’s apparent acquiescence seems to be a positive development, the fears of partial compliance and the possibility that the Syrian government may not live up to its side of the agreement are real. “Since it is almost impossible to know whether we can trust Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile, the administration needs to try to keep the prospect of strikes alive,” she added.
In fact, Jacob Zenn, an international security analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, said even if Syria gave up its entire chemical weapons stockpile to foreign control, Damascus could easily acquire and/or create such weapons on their own with help from their friends in Iran or even North Korea. “Logistically, it would not be difficult for them at all,” Zenn said. “They could easily keep and maintain a secret stockpile.”
Consider that Syria is not a signatory to either the CWC nor the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, nor has it ratified the Biological Weapons Convention. According to GlobalSecurity.org, Syria commenced its chemical weapons program in 1973 just ahead of the Yom Kippur War, when Egypt allegedly provided Damascus with artillery shells which could deliver chemical weapons. Since that time, Syria under the rule of Hafez Assad and now his son Bashar, has aggressively developed chemical and other non-conventional weapons – reportedly citing the threats posed to it by neighboring Israel, which is universally believed to possess nuclear weapons.
Global Security indicated that Syria is “not able to internally produce many of the necessary precursors to create chemical weapons and is dependent upon importing production equipment.” Syria's principal suppliers of chemical weapons-making technology are believed to be large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany.
Global Security also says the Syrians have the capability of manufacturing several hundred tons of chemical weapons agents per year, but that production facilities are so small that they are hard to identify. “Damascus already has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin [gas], and it would appear that Syria is trying to develop more toxic and persistent nerve agents,” said a CIA report from 2001.
Thus, after all these years of dealing with chemical weapons, it is not clear how much knowledge Syrians have gained in the manufacture of such deadly arms. Therefore, any assertions about Syria’s weapons-making capabilities remain a conjecture, even with the availability of intelligence reports. For example, Global Security also noted that Syria is a producer of phosphates, an ingredient that could conceivably be used for weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Syria produces 2 million tons of phosphate annually and has an estimated reserve of some 2 billion tons. In order to bypass import restrictions, the Syrians have apparently used the ostensible development of its pharmaceuticals sector to serve as a cover for its designs on importing ingredients for its chemical weapons program.
“There are many question marks regarding Syria’s weapons-making ability,” Nick Heras, an analyst with Jamestown, told IBTimes. “But, we think that in the event that Syria hands over its existing chemical weapons stockpile, their military will maintain a strategic reserve of the weapons at a facility which is probably located near the town of Latakia.”
For the moment, Assad is buying time to extend his own life and that of his murderous regime. Achilov warns that even if Assad were to give up chemical weapons entirely, there is no guarantee that he will not obtain them in the future, in the event he survives in the long term.
Given that the Assad regime has long denied possessing or using chemical weapons despite strong evidence to the contrary, Jeff Martini, Middle East analyst at RAND, nonetheless said that it is in the U.S. interest to “pursue this opportunity seriously until it reveals itself as the delaying tactic it likely is.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.