The Russian proposal to control and dismantle chemical weapons in Syria—How to test it without losing momentum

The Russians have been nimble at diplomacy throughout the two and a half years of the Syrian crisis, and today was no exception.  Picking up on a response made by Secretary of State John Kerry at a news conference, they proposed a deal whereby Syria would surrender its chemical weapons to international authorities and agree to their destruction, in exchange for the U.S. and its allies not carrying out military strikes against Syria.

See Michael R. Gordon and Steven Lee Myers, “Obama Calls Russia Offer on Syria Possible, New York Times, November 9, 2013.

This is an interesting proposition, but a perilous one. 

It is interesting because removal of chemical weapons from Syria and the risk of their falling into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated or other terrorists is very strongly in the national interests of both Russia and the United States.

Potentially, if done in the right manner, the removal of such weapons from Syria would also establish an important precedent regarding the use of chemical weapons:  “Use them, and you lose them.”

At the same time, the Russians and their Syrian clients have been adroit at dangling illusory negotiated solutions before the U.S. and other Western countries, succeeding time and again in fouling up any plans of outside powers to intervene forcefully in Syria to halt al-Assad’s atrocities. 

In this case, they seem to have zeroed in very precisely on President Obama’s whole rationale for intervening in Syria.  Predictably, he was thrown off, just as he was seeking Congressional authorization for military action against Syria. 

Meanwhile, while the approval of the House of Representatives appeared in doubt, as of today, Secretary of State Kerry and others have done a good job of building up international support for military action against Syria.  They aren’t there yet, but they have made great progress, and after the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Vilniius this last weekend, Kerry, Obama, and the U.S. clearly seem to be gaining momentum as other countries think through the consequences of failing to stand with the United States on Syria.

So what should the U.S. and its allies do about the Russian proposal?

One way to test the Russians’ intentions—without losing too much momentum—would be to propose that the U.N. Security Council adopt a binding resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter deciding that Syria will surrender all of its chemical weapons to international authorities and assist in their destruction.

The negotiation that would be left would be over the implementation of the resolution by al-Assad and the United Nations. Here, Russia could be expected to play an important part.

This approach would avoid the pattern of drawn-out negotiations to get al-Assad to agree to this or to that, when we all know—the world knows—that his agreement by itself means nothing.

It would also put the Russians’ true intentions to the test.  This could be done within a period of a couple of weeks, for example, so that at the end of that period we would have both the report of the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors and also know quite clearly whether the Russians are willing to act.

Even if agreed, such a plan would leave the civil war on the ground raging as before. 

It is conceivable, however, that after collaborating on such a Security Council resolution and subsequent implementing plans, that the Russians could become more amenable toward working with the West and the Arab countries to set up transitional arrangements in Syria. 

Given Iran’s experience of having been the subject of chemical weapons attacks by Iraq during their long and tragic war (1980-1988), and the recent election of Hassan Rohani as the new president, the complex interplay of forces in Iran could conceivably lead to support for such a solution adopted by the Security Council–and perhaps even open up further possibilities for agreement on transitional arrangements in Syria. 

So, in conclusion, the U.S. and its allies should:

1.  Avoid getting suckered in to protracted negotiations to obtain the consent of al-Assad for the removal and dismantlement of his chemical weapons. 

Make the agreement in the Security Council with the Russians and the other members of the Council.  Then let the Russians ensure that al-Assad complies with the agreement. 

2.  Proceed with military plans if the Russian offer proves to be just another illusion and delaying tactic, as so many of their initiatives have turned out to be in the past.

We should always give peace a chance.

But we should also always bear in mind that the question is not whether the United States is going to war with Syria, but rather whether the United States and its allies are going to act effectively to take steps toward bringing a war that is currently raging in Syria to a halt.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.