The Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under the control of international monitors and then destroy them, raises many difficult questions on implementation. But it offers the best means to ensure Syria’s arsenal of nerve agents do not end up in al Qaeda’s hands.
There is precedent for what Moscow is proposing: the post-1991 U.N. regime imposed on Iraq after Operation Desert Storm. U.N. inspectors were given a Security Council mandate to destroy Saddam’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the missiles to deliver them. It took years but it worked. The U.N. destroyed far more Iraqi weapons than the military power of America, Britain, and Israel had done in numerous attacks on Iraq. In fact the U.N. discovered the Iraqi programs were much larger and more sophisticated than American and Israeli intelligence ever suspected.
The U.N. regime worked, despite Iraqi obstruction and declining international support for the program. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton had to use force more than once to compel Iraqi compliance but, by 1999 or so, Iraq was WMD free. Of course that did not prevent another war based on sloppy and politicized intelligence.
Syria’s chemical arsenal may be even larger than Iraq’s. Uncovering all of it will take time and persistence, even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decides to fully cooperate. He is much more likely to try to thwart thorough monitoring and destruction, and to try to hold on to some of his deadly agents to use if his regime’s survival is in danger. So expect a long game of cat and mouse with Russia playing the role of Assad’s lawyer in New York. It is essential that the Security Council frame the mandate for inspection with clear language that Syrian obstruction will be met with force. Moscow will want to water that down so it will be a tough fight.
Inspections in the midst of a civil war will be very challenging. Even with a ceasefire, the inspectors will need some kind of security force or be at risk from all sides. Promises of cooperation from Assad and the rebels will not be good enough. Unless the inspectors have unrestricted access to any facility and location in the country, including presidential palaces and all military bases, as well as security to operate within those locations, it won’t work.
The potential gain is substantial. Unless some way is found to secure and eliminate Assad’s chemicals, he could use them again. Even worse, al Qaeda’s franchises in Iraq, the Nusra front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams, could get control of them and the scientists who make them. The two al Qaeda groups now compose perhaps as much as a quarter of the rebel fighters and they have hundreds of foreign jihadists fighting with them.
The Nusra front just claimed credit for killing Assad’s governor in the old city of Hama and has promised to rocket Alawite towns in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemicals. Al Qaeda has sought to acquire WMD since the 1990s. Syria today offers it the best chance it has ever had to get some chemical weapons. It would use them not just in Syria but against any American or Israeli target it could get close enough to for an attack. American embassies are already under siege from al Qaeda, a chemical attack would be even more deadly.
Russia may also be worried about who gets its hands on Syrian chemical weapons. There are Chechens fighting with al Qaeda in Syria now who would like to bring a chemical rocket or two to the Sochi Winter Olympics to cause mayhem. The Russians often portray all of the Syrian opposition as terrorists. It’s not true, but Assad’s brutality has given extremists entry into Syria and even Moscow should worry about the danger of al Qaeda getting sarin gas. The Russian proposal has many tricky details to be worked out but President Obama is smart to grab it and shape it.