New beginning

The US and Russia have surprised the world by reaching agreement on elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Under a framework agreement, Syria has a week to hand over a detailed list of its chemical weapons stockpile. Its entire chemical weapons capability will have to be destroyed by mid-2014. Should Syria not co-operate a UN resolution would be sought under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which allows for the use of force. The agreement must be hailed for several important reasons. For one, it prevents a US military strike on Syria that could have dangerously escalated the already raging civil war in the country. Therefore, this agreement is good for the Syrian people. It also provides the US with a face-saving exit option. With public and political support for an invasion of Syria unpopular at home, the Obama administration began to have second thoughts about carrying out military strikes on Syria. The Russian plan to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control gave Obama space to give it a try and thus put the military option aside. Importantly, this agreement jump-starts US-Russia co-operation on global issues.

US-Russia relations have deteriorated substantially in recent years. The war of words over Moscow’s extension of temporary asylum to former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden marked a new low in bilateral ties. However, it is on global issues that their differences have been most marked. In 2011, the US got Russia to support a UN resolution authorising force in Libya after promising Moscow that regime change was not a goal. After the resolution was passed, the US went ahead and ousted Muammar Gaddafi, a move that infuriated Russia. In Syria, the Russia backs the Bashar al-Assad government, while the Americans support the rebels. Not surprisingly, every international attempt at a negotiated end to the civil war has failed to take off.
 The big question is whether this agreement will succeed. The issue of eliminating Syria’s chemical arsenal is fraught with legal, diplomatic, political and technical problems. Can the monitors, for one, do their job in a country in the midst of civil war? Further, while the government’s chemical weapons capacity is being destroyed, weapons that the rebels’ backers abroad are believed to have provided them remain unaddressed. The selective elimination of chemical arsenal could lay the foundation for new conflicts.

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