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Despite Syria Chemical Weapons Deal, U.S. Must Remain Vigilant

Are talks on Syria chemical weapons an opportunity to thaw relations between Moscow and Washington?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

One important outcome of the agreement to dismantle Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal is the chemistry between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The hours of long meetings during three days of talks and the subsequent agreement could thaw relations between Moscow and Washington, and create a new dialogue between the two countries.

Especially important is that it allows the United States to get out of the military corner into which President Barack Obama had painted it, although he continues to say the military option is still on the table. The option might exist, but the agreement has taken the table apart.

As far as Syria is concerned, while the agreement sets a few precedents, it does not resolve the crisis within that country or put an end to the fighting.

For the first time since the uprising in Syria began in 2011, Russia is dictating conditions to Assad - including a timetable - and is not making do with recommendations or the outlines of a desired policy. As opposed to previous times, in which Russia said it could not force its will on Assad, this time the escape hatch has been closed. At least by declaration, Russia is also willing, for the first time, to accept the decision of the UN Security Council if Assad does not carry out the agreement.

The six clauses that constitute the framework of the agreement do not allow much room for maneuver if Assad wants to avoid its implementation. Within one week he must provide a detailed list of the storage sites and quantities of chemical weapons. There are believed to be at least 45 such sites, most of which are known in the West and Russia. However, there is no explanation as to why the first delegation of inspectors is to be sent to Syria only in November. If there is concern that these materials will be transferred to neighboring countries or hidden in unknown sites, inspection should start immediately.

Experts are still divided as to the best method for destroying the chemical weapons - whether in Syria or another country. According to the agreement, Assad must provide full security for the inspectors and the teams charged with destroying the chemical weapons, which will consist of members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. However, the war raging in Syria could prevent systematic and efficient destruction, or could prove harmful to the inspectors.

To judge by the response of the military opposition in Syria and its commander, Gen. Salim Idris – who reject the accord and regard it as a gift to Assad and an opportunity for him to drag his feet – there will certainly be those who want to obstruct its implementation in order to prove that Assad does not keep his word. The opposition groups fear that the agreement will grant Assad a chance to “prove” that he can be trusted, and that he is the only serious choice to lead Syria.

According to the agreement, the destruction of the entire chemical weapons arsenal is planned to end in mid-2014; a realistic assessment sees this happening at least a year from the day it is signed. What will happen if, during that period, the rebel forces or local gangs manage to take control of some of these weapons stores? The agreement makes no mention of such a possibility.

The only sanctions mentioned if Assad does not comply with the agreement are those the Security Council agrees to impose on Syria based on Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force or the imposition of sanctions. But there is no certainty that such a resolution will pass, because Russia might not agree to an American interpretation of a breach. Even if it does agree and does not veto a decision, China’s voice has not yet been heard and it, too, has the right to veto Security Council resolutions.

Despite doubts about its usefulness, this is an important agreement in and of itself, because at least it shows that an effort is being made to remove chemical weapons from a rogue state, which is also prepared to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. But this agreement will restrict, and at best stop, the Syrian regime from using only one type of weapon, which in any case it has not used often during the war. It does not outline a plan to end the war, change the regime or even institute a temporary cease-fire.

The two superpowers still disagree on this question, and another summit in Geneva is unlikely to change their positions.

The U.S. will be watching Syria like a hawk.Credit: AP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holding a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on September 14, 2013.Credit: AFP

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