By Paolo von Schirach
September 12, 2013
WASHINGTON – To the non expert the Geneva get together between Secretary od State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov should provide an almost immediate clarification on the seriousness of the last minute Russian-Syrian proposal about handing Syrian chemical weapons over to UN inspectors. Here is the scenario. Acting in good faith, Kerry goes to Geneva. He listens to the Russian proposal. Then he huddles with his team, including technical experts, and makes a determination as to whether the Russian plan has merit, or is instead flawed. If it has no merit, then the conversation is over. Kerry reports back to Obama. The Commander in Chief, having determined that there is no diplomatic solution for the Syrian WMD issue, goes back to the initial plan of punishing Assad for his use of chemical weapons through a limited military strike. If instead the Russian plan has merit, then all is well. Negotiations get started and soon enough the Syrian WMD stockpile will be accounted for and destroyed by international experts.
On the face of it, these are the two options. Simple and straightforward. Yes, except that it does not and will not work this way, for both political and technical reasons. Let’s look at the politics. First of all, let’s understand that, once Washington accepted the idea of a negotiated settlement, it will be politically impossible –even with clear evidence in hand– to retreat from the negotiating table by stating that the Syrians do not really mean it.
Think of it. Obama now knows that America does not want any war, not even a tiny one. The US Congress, quite adept at reading public opinion sentiment, is clearly leaning against any attack. And now that we have the opportunity to find a “peaceful solution” to this imbroglio it will be bad politics to let it go. Obama will not take the responsibility, whatever the evidence, to declare to America and the world that the Russians and the Syrians do not mean what they say. He knows that American public opinion will insist that all avenues possibly leading to a negotiated settlement should be explored. “Do not give up, Mr. President. Redouble your efforts. Try the impossible“.
Aware of the US political climate, if the Russians and the Syrians are even minimally smart, their strategy will be to look very cooperative –at least at the beginning. In so doing, they will for sure avert any US military strike, while at the same time buying good will. It is always possible to be devious later on, by dragging on and delaying. I suspect that this is exactly what will happen. Confronted with what will be presented to the world as openness and good will on the part of Assad, America would be in no position to break the talks for fear of political backlash at home and in the world.
Even though all experts know that it is very easy to keep this type of complex negotiations going even without any intention to come to a close, the burden of declaring the whole thing a sham would be on the United States. And in this US political climate those who “refuse to negotiate” will look bad.
How do you get rid of WMDs?…
Now let’s look at the substance. Handing over large chemical weapons stockpiles, while making sure that the factories producing them have been totally dismantled, would be an overwhelming task in ordinary circumstances. By that I mean that even if we assumed total good faith and complete cooperation on the part of the Syrian Government, disposing of chemical weapons is a complicated, lengthy, costly and dangerous exercise. And, of course, it would be extremely difficult to determine with absolute certainty that all stockpiles, factories, facilities and munitions are accounted for. Syria is a big country. The Syrians could be able to keep some stockpiles out of sight. Anyway, the point is that dismantling huge WMD arsenals is a very complicated effort.
…In the middle of a civil war?
Keeping this in mind, imagine conducting the very same effort while dealing with an uncooperative Assad who is protected by an instinctively hostile Russian Government. And imagine that this undertaking will be carried out by UN experts who will have to operate in a country in the middle of a chaotic and bloody civil war. Can anybody seriously believe that the international community will be able to dispose of all these weapons –in these circumstances?
This is essentially an impossible task.
America will get nothing
So, let’s review the situation. Lacking political support for a military strike, Obama is forced to accept very unpromising negotiations without the opportunity to get out of them, because this would be interpreted as unwillingness to give diplomacy a chance. Given all this, even in the most optimistic scenario, it would be impossible to have a quick resolution to this WMD issue, just because it is extremely complicated. The net outcome of all this is that Assad’s open violation of the ban on chemical weapons will go unpunished. The whole world will see that America talks big and in the end does nothing.
No negotiated end to the civil war in Syria
Of course, in an ideal world, this US-Russia Summit in Geneva could become the opportunity to launch a comprehensive negotiation aimed at bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. But this would assume that Assad is ready to give up a lot. And why should he? He is winning. The rebels are not advancing. America is not helping them in a meaningful way. Whereas Assad can count on continuing military assistance and more from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. As he is ahead, why should he make any concessions? Conceding, in principle, to give up WMDs is a clever political ploy. Assad knows that this process will require years. In the meantime he is free to continue his war and finish the rebels.