How feasible is Russia's proposal on Syria?

A Free Syrian Army fighter passes by the convoy of UN inspectors on 28 August The Russian proposal would possibly see UN inspectors return to Syria

Russia has put forward a proposal to prevent military action against Syria - it has asked the Syrian government to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed. But how feasible would this be?

The diplomatic path to controlling and destroying Syria's chemical stockpile would not be easy.

First, the Syrian government would need to confirm that it does in fact have chemical weapons, something which for decades it has refused to do - except for one inadvertent aside made by a hapless government spokesman.

Then Damascus would need to identify exactly which and what quantities of chemicals were stored at which location. Such a declaration would need to be verified, probably by UN inspectors, who would need to go in to confirm that the claims of the Syrian government were matched by what they found on the ground.

Map showing key chemical weapons production and storage sites

And even this might not end the arguments over whether the list was comprehensive and whether there were still some stockpiles the Syrian president was holding back. Remember the many visits made to Iraq by UN weapons inspectors over a period of more than 10 years, and the arguments in the run up to the 2003 US led invasion.

Secondly, it is hard to see how this initiative could get off the ground without the approval of the UN Security Council - the same body which for more than two years has repeatedly failed to reach a consensus over resolutions on Syria.

Chemical weapons plan timeline

5-6 Sept Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama discuss idea of placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control on sidelines of G20 summit, Putin spokesman says

Monday 9 Sept

07:30 GMT At press conference with Russia's Sergei Lavrov, Syria's Walid Muallem hints at chemical weapons plan

09:12 In UK, John Kerry says Mr Assad could avert an attack if he "turn[s] over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community"

14:00 In second press conference, Mr Lavrov says he has urged Mr Muallem to "not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction". Mr Muallem welcomes proposal, and it is prominently reported on Syrian state TV, suggesting Damascus is behind plan. Mr Obama says a military strike is "absolutely" on pause if Syria yields control of its chemical weapons

A formal request would need to be drafted to ask or require Syria to hand the stockpiles over to international control. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has already indicated he is thinking of approaching the Security Council to call on Syria to move its chemical weapons to sites where they could be safely stored and destroyed.

But any draft resolution could easily get bogged down in arguments over the terms and the language used. Already the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has warned that any UN Security Council Resolution would need to be backed up by tough conditions, with a short timeframe and a warning of severe consequences if it was not implemented. Would Russia agree to that? Not on recent form.

Stalling tactic?

In the third place, even if these hurdles were overcome, the practical problems of inserting UN inspectors into a country in the midst of a civil war would have to be overcome.

Could all sides in the conflict be persuaded to abide by a ceasefire to allow UN officials access to sites to do their work? Would pledges to assure the safety of international inspectors in parts of the country where no one group has clear control even have any meaning?

Previous attempts at truces to allow humanitarian agencies in to help the wounded and displaced have failed to materialise. Getting agreement on this issue would surely be much harder.

So, given all these obstacles, is there any chance this initiative could get off the ground?

Syria's chemical weapons

  • CIA believes Syria's chemical weapons can be "delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets"
  • Syria believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, and also tried to develop more toxic nerve agents such as VX gas
  • Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

Sources: CSIS, RUSI

It seemed to come out of the blue. By Sergei Lavrov's own admission, it was prompted by an off the cuff comment by the US Secretary of State John Kerry (a remark Mr Kerry later dismissed as purely rhetorical) and put to the Syrian foreign minister later the same day.

Possibly both the Russians and the Syrians see it more as a stalling tactic to try to delay American military action or to undermine already weak public support for military strikes.

But it has not been dismissed by Washington, with President Obama himself describing it as a "potential breakthrough" and revealing in an interview that he had discussed putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control with Russia's President Putin last week.

US officials have said they are prepared to consider it - if it is a genuine offer - while urging Congress to approve military action as the only way to maintain pressure on the Assad regime.

Internationally, everyone on all sides seems to agree that if the Syrian government could be persuaded to give up their chemical weapons stocks, it would be an important step. And all sides want to be seen to be encouraging a peaceful outcome to the conflict, even if there is only a slender chance this is the way to make it happen.

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