To the surprise of many, Russia’s Foreign Minister on Monday announced that Moscow would press the Syrian government to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile to international community supervision, a proposition that has gathered an impressive amount of steam in the short time since. But how would such a deal actually work?
The proposal first came into being during a seemingly off-the-cuff statement from Secretary of State John Kerry while meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “Sure,” Kerry said when asked if there were anything Assad could do to stop an attack. “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. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
State Department officials have since sought to clarify that the Secretary was speaking hypothetically, but Israeli newspaper Haaretz also reported last week, to little fanfare, that Israeli and Western governments were examining how such a transfer could work. In any case, Kerry’s comments have caused a sudden surge in support for the idea. “We have given our proposal to Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and are counting on a fast and, I hope, positive response,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Monday. Following the Russian statement, the Syrian foreign minister said in turn that his government would indeed be open to such a proposal.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the U.S. will “take a hard look” at the Russian proposal, adding that “everything we’ve seen from Assad points in the opposite direction.” Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken speaking at the White House press briefing on Monday said that the U.S. “would welcome a decision and action of Syria to give up its chemical weapons,” but couched it in the fact that states have been trying to persuade Syria to give up its chemical weapons for years. Blinken also noted that it was only under the threat of military action that these proposals have surfaced.
Despite that, the idea of a non-military solution does seem to be gaining some traction. “If Syria were to put its chemical weapons beyond use, under international supervision, clearly that would be a big step forward and should be encouraged,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said, while warning that it may well be a delaying tactic from the Syrian government. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a supporter of strikes against Syria, said that should Syria be serious about transferring its stockpile she “would welcome such a move.”
Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who once reportedly supported arming Syrian rebels last year, sounded an optimistic note during a speech at the White House on Monday. “Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” she said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction.”
Having possibly gained Syrian acquiescence, the next step would be having the United Nations sign on to taking control of the stockpiles. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon added his voice to calls for such a move from Syria during a press conference on Monday morning about the recently concluded inspections conducted outside of Damascus. “I am considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed,” Ban said, labeling the recent paralysis that the Security Council has seen over Syria as “embarrassing.”
Russia’s seeming support for possible action lends itself to the Security Council actually passing a new resolution on Syria, the first in over a year. While there are no real details out about what terms Syria would agree to, the basic structure for a deal exists. Syria would have to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the use of chemical weapons and has been frequently cited by the Obama administration as part of the norm against their being wielded. The Council could, in theory, pass a binding resolution demanding that Syria sign onto the CWC, declare its current stockpile of chemical weapons, and allow access to the storage sites holding them.
The United Nations even already has infrastructure in place to work with Syria towards disarmament. As part of the CWC, the body stood up the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has the mandate of being able to conduct inspections of the various facilities that signatories of the CWC have under their control. The process for declaration of chemical weapons sites is normally a lengthy one, made more difficult given the movement of chemical weapons materials intelligence agencies have detected, but is one that would likely have to be shortened considerably in the context of a deal. “The emerging Russian proposal to Syria is worth testing if an answer is forthcoming in the timeframe [of one week] that Russia is talking about and if it is serious enforceable proposal,” Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, told ThinkProgress.
While not directly addressing the Russian and Syrian announcements, however, National Security Advisor Susan Rice speaking at the New America Foundation on Monday echoed many of the arguments U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power made at the Center of American Progress last week. In doing so, Rice pushed aside any thought of using her former portfolio as a venue for taking action against Syria. “It is just not going to happen now,” she said, “Believe me, I know. I was there for all of those U.N. debates and negotiations on Syria. I lived it. And it was shameful.”