A Syrian Semi-Solution

The prospect of the Syrian regime placing its chemical weapons under international control to avoid foreign military strikes seems almost too good to be true. Any deal must include not just international control of the weapons, but eventual destruction of the weapons and the wherewithal to make them.  With these steps, Syria could actually become a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (which bans all chemical weapons worldwide). In the Middle East, which has seen chemical weapons used multiple times, Syrian chemical disarmament would be a step in the right direction.

Better yet, this development would mark a victory for “armed diplomacy.” If a country or group of countries can achieve political objectives with the threat of military strikes rather than actual military strikes, everyone is better off.  But the notion that states could successfully threaten a country to join a disarmament treaty is a little far-fetched.

So, what could go wrong? First, the deal could fall through by the parties failing to agree on the modalities of securing/disarming the chemical weapons. To put it mildly, it’s complicated.  Syria is suspected of having one of the most advanced programs in the Middle East, with a stockpile of hundreds of chemical weapons agents, including mustard gas, sarin, and possibly VX nerve agent. In the best of circumstances, a thorough accounting of Syria’s chemical weapons and manufacturing capabilities would be difficult; in a war zone, it will be nearly impossible.  Real verification may have to await peace.

On the other hand, securing identified sites could be done quickly.  Syria must allow on-site access to outside (Russian or international) inspectors to confirm and/or provide security wherever chemical weapons are stored. Such sites, for obvious reasons, would have to be away from active military units or operations. Chemical weapons might need to be centrally stored if they are not already. The United Nations could set up a commission, as it did for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, to monitor security and, eventually, destruction. The modalities of all this can be complicated, but Assad could win trust by implementing a cease-fire until chemical weapons have been secured.

This points to a larger potential drawback to this plan. By taking his chemical weapons off the table, Bashar al-Assad may make Syria safe against foreign military strikes for quite some time. By eliminating the unmentionable (use of weapons of mass destruction and terror against civilian populations), it may give the Syrian regime more political maneuverability to do the unconscionable (use conventional weapons against civilian populations). In other words, a deal could make Syria safe for further killing. In the worst scenario, the Syrian government could keep certain stockpiles of chemical weapons for later use, and blame their use on the opposition. Without a detailed verification of its stocks, it would be impossible to know what was left in the closet.

Of course, last year, Assad sought to inoculate his country against foreign military attack by stating that he had chemical weapons and was ready to use them on foreign forces if invaded.  While there is no talk of introducing ground forces in Syria, the risk of Syrian chemical weapons “incidents” affecting neighboring countries (Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan) cannot be dismissed. With survival at stake, there is no telling what bad decisions might seem reasonable to a crumbling regime. 

For all these reasons, it is time to take these weapons out of the equation. While guarding against obvious discrepancies and loopholes, diplomats need to give this effort a fighting chance. A limited security plan should be a first step, followed by as many additional steps as possible. No one should expect a good deal from Syria, but leaders must be able to recognize an adequate deal that will reduce the risks that these weapons now pose in this war-torn region.

Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sharon Squassoni