WASHINGTON – Now that the Obama administration seriously is considering the Russian idea for the Syrian government to place all of its chemical weapons under international control, making a U.S. military assault on Syria unnecessary, there are details that loom as obstacles.
For one thing, the rebels, who may well have launched the chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus themselves, according to available evidence, are opposing the idea.
The rebels, the “opposition” in Syria, are unhappy since the effect of the agreement would be to have the U.S. hold off on military action for now.
The rebels, who have been influenced increasingly by elements of al-Qaida-affiliated groups, hoped that the United States and the West would bomb Syria’s military sites which have chemical weapons – sites such as command and control, airfields, artillery and missile locations that give the Syrian military its battlefield superiority.
These same opposition elements, given their dislike of a plan to relinquish control, are sprinkled throughout the country and could make it difficult for United Nations inspectors to secure the various chemical weapons sites in Syria, or the storage facilities that house chemical weapons precursors throughout the nation.
The opposition believes any delay in bombing that would give them the momentum in their fight against the troops of President Bashar al-Assad will only embolden the Syrian government to continue the fighting.
In the larger geo-strategic context, a delay in bombing Syria also would cause a loss of focus toward regime change that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel have been seeking as they try to limit the growing influence of Iran in the region.
Delay or even cancellation of bombing plans would have the effect of deflecting the message that Israel and the Saudi kingdom especially sought to send to Iran to halt what they perceive as Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
In addition, sources believe that U.S. backing of the Russian proposal could play into Moscow’s hands and suggest the U.S. is unreliable to its allies, weak and indecisive to the world.
On the other hand, Moscow would appear to be taking the high road toward avoiding a war that few people either domestically or internationally welcome.
The proposal for Syria to place its chemical weapons and precursors under international control came from an off-hand remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a London news conference earlier this week.
Within hours, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made it known that Russia supported the proposal but then State Department officials said the remark really was just “rhetorical argument.”
As time passed, the proposal began to get more serious attention when Syria’s government said it was acceptable.
The Russians said they would work with the Syrians to develop a plan to transfer control of Syria’s chemical weapons to U.N. inspectors, who then would destroy the weapons stockpiles.
Lavrov also said that he would get the Syrians to sign the multilateral Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.
Only seven nations in the world, including Syria and Egypt, are the current non-signatories to the CWC in the Middle East region.
Israel has signed the CWC, but to this day hasn’t ratified it.
Now that the Syrian government officially has said that it accepts the Russian chemical weapons proposal, the Russians intend to get with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is charged with CWC compliance.
“If the Russian diplomatic solution to the Syrian imbroglio sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is,” according to sources at the open-intelligence group Stratfor.
These sources point out that the logistical complications alone “far exceed” Russia’s diplomatic ambitions.
Syria is thought to have some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in stockpiles dispersed at some 50 different sites across the country.
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has told his colleagues that getting Syria to sign up to the CWC and then have its stockpiles destroyed “is a long way off.” Nevertheless, McConnell opposes a Senate resolution under consideration that would approve the bombing of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Many of the sites are under government control, which will make access by U.N. inspectors somewhat easy. However, some of the sites are in battle zones for the conflict between the Syrian government and opposition forces, which would make access problematic.
To underscore the difficulty U.N. inspectors may have, a number of inspectors who sought to investigate the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack which killed what U.S. officials say were 1,429 people in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, came under sniper fire and had to turn back.
Such exposure would make U.N. inspectors also subject to rebel factions who don’t want to see implementation of the Russian agreement.
To bring the dispersed chemical weapons stockpiles under some form of control, it will take literally hundreds of inspectors to fan out to the various sites across the country, some of which could be taken over by rebel forces.
There also remain questions as to which countries would be willing to contribute experts to be part of the U.N. inspection teams that could be subjected to potential hostility. They undoubtedly would need armed escort to avoid being overrun by the rebels and foreign fighters and have the sites taken over in contested areas of the country.
This then raises the further issue of which countries would commit the security detail and as yet undetermined number of security personnel and the type of arms needed to protect the U.N. inspectors.
Given the complexity of such an operation, sources say that bringing the chemical weapons under international control will take considerable time.
“Chemical weapons stockpiles are not easily transported, particularly in war conditions,” a report from Stratfor pointed out, “and it would be difficult to verify that all chemical weapons are accounted for.
“If an inspection team attempted to destroy the stockpiles on site, such an operation would entail a great deal of time and risk,” the report said.
It pointed out that the U.S. Field Deployable Hydrolysis System could begin operating within 20 days of arriving at a location, but it can only neutralize between five and 25 tons of chemical agents a day.
“Neutralizing 1,000 tons of chemical agents in dozens of sites across the country amid a civil war is a job for a months-long military campaign, not a U.N. mission,” the report said.
“Given deep and widespread unease, from the United States to Russia to Europe, over placing ground troops in Syria, it is difficult to envision any country willing to apply the forces necessary to carry out such a mission.”