Syria's offer has appeal, but complex implications

Syria's offer has appeal, but complex implications

Chemical arms in motion are difficult to track, making surrender hard to verify

When Secretary of State John Kerry dangled for the first time on Monday actions that President Bashar Assad of Syria could take to avoid a military strike, it seemed an acknowledgment that Congress, America’s allies and the Russians were all looking for an off-ramp for what a week ago seemed like inevitably military action against Syria.

The concept has taken on many permutations in the past five days, but its essence is this: force Assad to turn his huge stockpile of chemical weapons over to some kind of international control and recognise the international ban on chemical weapons. The appeal of the idea is that, if successful, it could create a far more lasting solution than a brief strike on Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure, especially a strike that Kerry characterized Monday morning as “unbelievably small.”

Russia, seizing what appeared to be offhand remarks by Kerry called on Syria to accept monitering and eventually eliminate its chemical arsenal as a wayout of the impasse. President Barack Obama cautiously embraced the idea, calling it, “possible, if it is real.”
France said it would propose a UN Security Council resolution setting out conditions for placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and dismantling its arsenal, and Russia said it was working with the Syrian authorities to develop a “concrete plan.”

Experts on chemical weapons and the Syrian government said that it would be next to impossible to know with certainty where all of Assad’s sprawling, constantly moving arsenal is residing, much less who is controlling it. And flying it out of the country is not as simple as picking up nuclear components - as the United States did in Libya in late 2003 - and moving them to a well-guarded site in Tennessee.

Though Kerry also expressed skepticism that the Syrians would take up the idea, his comments were notable because as recently as the middle of last week he was not talking about any diplomatic initiatives to secure the stockpile. A proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both junior members of the Democratic caucus, to give Assad 45 days to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin to turn over his weapons had yet to catch Kerry’s attention.

Even over the weekend, when the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, spoke on five Sunday talk shows, there was no discussion of finding a way to separate Assad from the stockpile he and his father have been building for three decades.

That changed when Kerry, asked in London about what the Syrian leader could do to avoid attack, declared: “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

Then he added: “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Open to the idea

Kerry may be right, but the Syrians have begun to signal that they may be open to the idea, if only to buy time.

By Monday afternoon, White House officials were on the same page. “We would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons,” Antony J Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters. But he added that “for 20 years” the United States has tried to get Syria to sign on to the international treaty banning those weapons, and that “it would take time, resources and a peaceful environment.”

Within hours, Kerry’s nemesis on the issue of Syria, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V Lavrov, had his own version of the same idea. “The establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks,” he said, going on to talk about how that could be a prelude to the “subsequent destruction” of the stockpile.

For Obama, these ideas could, at least in theory, be a way out of what many White House officials fear is a looming disaster. A growing number of senators - Heitkamp among them - came out on Monday declaring that they could not support the White House request for an authorization for a strike, at least in its present form.

Obama’s allies in Europe are similarly hesitant. “Everyone is looking for an answer to the question, 'How does a strike lead you to a diplomatic solution?'” a senior European diplomat, who has been sympathetic to military action, said over the weekend. “He hasn’t connected the military action to a broader strategy.”

But even if Assad was willing to go along with the concept of turning his arsenal over to international control, the hurdles would be considerable. A senior American official who has been briefed extensively on the intelligence noted in recent days that Washington has firm knowledge of only 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites. Those numbers are constantly changing, because Assad has been moving the stores, largely for fear some of them could fall into the hands of rebels.

“If Assad said he was turning this stuff over, how would we know if he has really complied?” asked the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.

Moreover, chemical weapons are so unstable that moving them is incredibly dangerous; most American contingency plans, officials say, call for burning them on site, a process that could take years.

But at this point, Obama is looking for a way to avoid defeat in Congress, Kerry is looking for a way to drive Assad and the rebels to the table, and the Russians are looking for a way to keep their Syrian client in power. And so the pressure seems likely to build to find a way for Assad to make a gesture that could avoid a strike, or at least an immediate one.