If a Russian proposal to pressure Bashar al-Assad into declaring and relinquishing his chemical weapons stockpile moves forward, the United States will be in the strange position of relying on one of Syria's chief weapons suppliers to disarm a regime the president has accused of gassing its own people.
President Obama Tuesday night asked Congress to postpone a vote he had requested less than two weeks earlier to authorize a limited airstrike on Syria. He is now seizing on what he called an opportunity that may result in disarming Syria without using military force.
The proposal—which came together in the last two days following an offhand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry—could avert America’s entrance into the Syrian civil war. If the plan works, it would solve the most pressing security dilemma for the United States and its allies: how to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorist groups if Assad’s regime collapses.
At the same time, current and former U.S. officials are dubious that Russia is sincere in its desire to disarm a client state, and say Moscow is more likely to shield Syria from any consequences from its use of chemical weapons.
While Syria has several suppliers of chemical weapons, the former Soviet Union provided important training, technology, and chemical weapons to the regime during the Cold War. More recently, Russia has become Syria's chief defender in the international community and conventional weapons supplier even as human rights groups and neighboring powers have accused it of launching the August 21 mass casualty attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. intelligence officials say Russia has helped Syria develop its own industry for making the chemical weapons themselves.
The British government has estimated that Syria has used chemical weapons 14 times since the start of its civil war. (The U.S. estimates around nine or 10 chemical attacks by the regime, including Ghouta.) But Russian officials have suggested that opposition forces launched the attack in Ghouta and have been unwilling to even support a press release by the U.N. Security Council to condemn the carnage without assigning blame, according to a speech last week from Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
U.S. officials have speculated that one reason behind Russia’s defense of Assad is Moscow’s own role in supplying the Syrians with the kind of gas President Obama accused the regime of using in Ghouta. The U.S. intelligence community has suspected for years that Russia is one of Syria’s suppliers of the technology needed to produce stocks of nerve gas, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel went further last week and said the Russians had supplied Syria with those types of weapons. Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast this week that Hagel was not supposed to disclose this information. The Pentagon's spokesman, George Little, later clarified that Hagel was speaking only about Russia’s supplying Syria with conventional weapons.
Others, however, thought a rigorous inspection of Syria's chemical weapons program would reveal the long arm of Moscow. “If the inspectors were welcome to walk around, I would not be surprised if they might find some of those weapons with Cyrillic writing on it,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. (Cyrillic is the Russian language alphabet.)
Rogers said it was possible that Russia was being sincere in its offer to disarm Assad’s regime. He noted that the Russians had an interest in finding any potential Russian chemical munitions before other international inspectors did. “It could work,” he said. “But it’s not going to work if the president does not keep a credible threat of force on the table.”
Russia’s offer is also ironic in part because the State Department has not been able to force Russia itself to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the international treaty that came into effect in 1997 to outlaw both the possession and transfer of chemical weapons. The latest State Department report on the treaty noted, “Based on available information, the United States cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations for declaration of its CWPFs [Chemical Weapons Production Facilities], CW development facilities, and CW stockpiles.” This paradox was not lost on Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho, who Tweeted on Monday night, “According to our own State Department, Russia isn’t living up to its own Chemical Weapons obligations. How can we trust them with Syria’s?”
Paula DeSutter, who served from 2002 to 2009 as the assistant secretary of State for verification and compliance—a post that involved monitoring countries’ compliance with the CWC—told The Daily Beast that the problem with Russia and the CWC has been an issue going back to her first year on the job. “Our estimates on their stockpiles based on their production facility capacity gave a much higher production number than they actually declared,” she said.
To be sure, the United States has yet to destroy its own stocks of chemical weapons in compliance with the treaty. DeSutter also said she believed the Russians were in “noncompliance” with the CWC, but added that the United States never had definitive proof of Russian violations beyond intelligence estimates.
Thomas Moore, the deputy director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that even if the Russians were being sincere in regard to Syria, “this will take months if everything goes well. The civil war is not going to stop while weapons inspectors are on the ground.”
Moore said months could be taken up just in the process of Syria's declaration of its chemical weapons program. Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem Tuesday said his country would sign the CWC and would agree to the Russian proposal. It was not the first time Syria had acknowledged a chemical weapons arsenal. In 2012, Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for Syria's Foreign Ministry, acknowledged Syria possessed biological and chemical weapons and said they were safely stored by the Syrian military.
Fred Hof, who left his post last year as special adviser for political transition in Syria at the State Department, said he suspected the Russians were playing for time. "I would expect if the Russians do it their way, this would be a very elongated process to come up with procedures and protocols and all the other things that would go along with it," Hof said.
Hof, who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, added that he suspects “the Russian proposal is an effort to encourage a no vote on the part of Congress. I am willing to entertain the argument that it is indeed a sincere effort. This is something where the president will have to do his due diligence.”
Regardless, Moscow’s move has given the superpower “wonderful leverage” said Fiona Hill, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Hill said that Putin has gained control of the media narrative and created momentum for diplomacy. But she also said that Russia shares America’s interest in keeping chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists. “I think you have to be careful at painting this in black-and-white terms," she said. “The Russians know there is a whole world of grief if Syria collapses.”
Rogers was more skeptical. “Putin is playing chess and the administration is playing marbles. It is frustrating to watch.”