Viewpoints: Can Russia’s chemical weapons plan for Syria work?

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (L) walk to a press conference
Image caption Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem, who has agreed to the plan

A Russian proposal for Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control, and then have them destroyed, has been accepted by the Syrian government. Can Russia's plan work?

In response to the developments, US President Barack Obama has put military action against Syria on hold and vowed to pursue diplomacy to remove the regime's chemical weapons.

But US Secretary of State John Kerry said the plan must be "swift and verifiable".

The size and location of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile have been the subject of speculation for many years, but some believe it is the world's largest.

Experts below discuss the feasibility of Russia's plan for Syria.

Dina Esfandiary, research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

The quick answer to can Russia's chemical weapons plan for Syria work is no, it's unlikely it will.

Assuming that all the countries concerned are negotiating in good faith, they must first agree on an implementation timeline and the practicalities of such a deal. Following this, Assad must declare his chemical weapons stockpiles. This could be done fairly rapidly, though unlikely in the seven days Secretary Kerry imagined. It would be difficult to be certain that all stockpiles were declared. After all, Libya who agreed to disarm voluntarily during peacetime "discovered" an undeclared stockpile in 2011.

Following the stockpile declaration, inspectors would be sent in to verify Assad's holdings. Syria's chemical weapons production and storage facilities are scattered throughout the country. The inspectors would have to travel to all these sites in the midst of a civil war - presenting the ideal target to anyone wanting to derail the process.

Once verified, the dismantling and destruction process begins. For safety and security, but also for logistical reasons, it would be better to move agents to fewer locations, ideally, all the way out of Syria. But moving chemical agents and weapons is extremely hazardous, all the more in a context of war.

Securing Syria's chemical weapons could be done rapidly, if the international community had 75,000 troops at their disposal. But accounting for them and destroying them would take years, not months, to complete. After all, nine years after Libya began the destruction of its stockpiles; only 50% of its Mustard Gas and 40% of its chemical precursors were destroyed.

So no, it's unlikely that Russia's plan for Syria's chemical weapons will work. But even if there is a small chance that it could destroy a fraction of Assad's chemical weapons capabilities, then it must be given a chance.

Joe Cirincione, president of global security foundation Ploughshares Fund

Yes, we can secure and destroy Syria's chemical arsenal.

Securing and destroying Syria's large chemical weapons arsenal is a daunting task, with dozens of logistical nightmares. But it is still far easier than the alternatives of doing nothing or going to war.

The first step is getting inspectors safely into the country. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has a corps of experts who have helped eliminate weapons in 15 nations and conducted inspections in 86 states. But none were in the midst of a civil war. No-fire zones around weapons depots will have to be negotiated with the Syrian government and rebel forces. This could take weeks.

The weapons will have to be consolidated into a few main depots. Syria must provide a total inventory of its weapons and a history of their production, so inspectors can check production against declared inventory and start accounting for any missing weapons. This could take months.

Elimination of the weapons can be done fairly easily for those that have not yet been mixed. But destroying weaponised agents, particularly sarin, is harder. The weapons will have to be carefully disassembled and the nerve gas incinerated in specially constructed burners built on site. This could take several years.

Nothing in Syria is easy. But all of this can be done.

Sir Andrew Wood, associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House

No it can't [work], if you really mean chemical disarmament.

It presupposes openness on all sides, which is improbable given the record. It presupposes that the [opposition] must also be included in this, given one of the Russians' insistencies that they hold chemical weapons. There is no way of doing that. Even if they had some, they are not so organised as to be able to deliver that part of the bargain.

There is unlimited room for delay and discussion about that.

Then there's the question of monitoring and enforcement. There's a question of how far the Syrian government itself is prepared to [reveal] how many chemical weapons it has. And having denied that it has any at all for some considerable amount of time, it seems unlikely.

So I don't think it's going to succeed completely. Notionally, it could make some marginal difference.

But there's no way that anybody can be certain that the whole operation has been carried out successfully. That's just not going to happen.

There's a confusion of aims between the Syrian regime and its Russian backers on the one hand, and [the] impracticality [of removing the weapons] on the other.

[But] it may succeed in averting a US [military] strike, and that may be a good thing because I don't see the point of a strike unless you are prepared to go on and follow it up.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center

The short answer is yes [the plan] can work, although it doesn't mean it will. Russia holds the key.

[The plan] will require pretty serious heavy lifting. It will require the Syrian government opening itself up, as far as its chemical arsenal is concerned, to the international community. It will require teams of inspectors to come to Syria and it would require that team to be supported by a peacekeeping force, a sizeable one.

It will require a ceasefire in the areas where the chemical weapons are stored, [and] an agreement between the Syrian government and the international community, whether the UN or the Organisation for Chemical Weapons, and thus an implicit recognition of the Assad regime as the government or authority in Syria.

It will require a serious re-launch of the political process in Syria.

So [it's] a very tall order. [But] working along that path is the best option that we have. Military strikes would be a very bad option for everyone involved, except maybe for the anti-Western extremist forces in Syria and the Middle East more broadly, [who] would thrive in the wake of US strikes in Syria.

We don't have a choice other than to get our act together and do what has been suggested and what has been, in general terms, approved by the international community.

Timothee Germain, research fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control Studies (CESIM)

The implementation of any plan whatsoever is going to be extremely tricky because we understand the Syrian arsenal to be the third largest behind the historic levels of the US and Russia.

That's a lot of hardware that needs to be controlled on the ground in a country which is in the middle of a civil war. So this is by default extremely complicated and much more difficult to accomplish.

One option could be maybe to take part of the arsenal out of the country, to Russia for instance, to dismantle the arsenal there, using Russian facilities - [otherwise] you'd need facilities to be built [in Syria] to dismantle the chemical weapons.

Whether [chemical disarmament] is done on the ground in Syria or abroad, it would be extremely long.

Syria could take steps to prove it's willing to cooperate by joining the Chemical Weapons convention, [which] Foreign Minister Muallem hinted to yesterday.

But how tangible is that going to be for the US and France in terms of halting military pressure?

It was a very shrewd operation by Russia because it essentially buys Syria a lot of time to keep on going with the war.

It shifts attention away from the actual reality of the conflict on the ground.

Chemical weapons have been used for several months now in Syria, but they collectively are not responsible for that many deaths, whereas over 100,000 people have died so far.

Now Western diplomacy is going to be focused on chemical weapons and it's going to be a lengthy process. In the meantime Assad is essentially free to continue [the war] with whatever means other than chemical weapons, which is probably the biggest victory for him in this respect.

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