The large-scale use of chemical weapons against rebel-controlled areas outside Damascus on Aug. 21 requires a strong international response to help ensure that further such attacks are not launched ever again in Syria or elsewhere.
The UN chemical weapons inspection team found evidence of extensive use of the nerve agent sarin, determined the type of rockets used in the attacks, and calculated the direction from which the rockets were fired. These findings and others all point to use by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In the wake of these horrible attacks, which killed more than 1,000 men, women, and children, U.S. and Russian leaders now have an opportunity to establish international control of and to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal.
After days of intensive talks in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached a landmark agreement Sept. 14 for the expeditious accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria’s deadly arsenal under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Under the terms of the plan, which was approved by the OPCW and UN Security Council, Syria is required to declare its arsenal and allow initial inspections in November. By mid-2014, the entire stockpile, including chemical agents, production facilities, and delivery systems, is to be safely eliminated or, if necessary, removed from the country.
The plan is difficult but doable. Moscow and Washington bear a tremendous responsibility for its success. Making the plan work depends heavily on the ability of Moscow to maintain pressure on its client, Assad, to fully cooperate with the process of eliminating his chemical stockpile on schedule.
The United States and Russia will also have to continue to work together to overcome the serious security, technical, and financial challenges that lie ahead. Assad’s forces are believed to possess about 1,000 tons of blister agents, including mustard gas, and nerve agents, including sarin and VX, at dozens of sites. Most of this stockpile consists of precursor chemicals and bulk agent with relatively little already weaponized.
The OPCW will need additional experienced personnel to verify the accuracy of Syria’s declaration and to oversee stockpile elimination. Currently, the organization only has about 125 inspectors with ongoing responsibilities worldwide. The United States, Russia, and other donor states will need to provide additional financing, technical experts, and equipment for the task ahead.
Moscow and Washington agree that the most important first steps are to secure the chemical sites and begin destroying the equipment needed to mix chemicals and arm delivery systems. That will reduce the threat posed to Syria’s people and its neighbors as soon as possible.
With Syria’s stockpile largely in bulk and precursor form, it can be more easily incinerated and neutralized in semi-mobile units, which will facilitate the accelerated destruction schedule. Munitions can be destroyed in closed, steel-canister systems, making destruction in nine to 12 months feasible.
President Barack Obama’s call for holding Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons, combined with the credible threat of punitive U.S. cruise missile strikes, already has transformed Syria’s chemical arsenal into an enormous liability for the Syrian government. These weapons no longer can be used. Assad must verifiably eliminate them to avoid U.S. military action.
Although Russia will continue to object to the possible use of force against Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now invested in the success of the plan, something that was difficult to imagine before the August chemical attacks.
Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, Assad could try to hide some of his chemical weapons stockpile. It will be up to Russia, Assad’s main arms supplier and political supporter, to ensure he fully cooperates and avoids a possible U.S. military attack.
Contrary to the statements of some critics, the plan does not “absolve” Assad from the war crime of using chemical weapons. The UN Security Council can refer such war crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC) even if the persons responsible are citizens of a state that has not ratified the ICC statute.
The U.S.-Russian framework for the control and verifiable destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is not intended to resolve the ongoing, brutal conflict in Syria. But it does provide the most effective way of denying Assad the option to use some of his most dangerous weapons against unprotected civilians and rebel forces.
The U.S.-Russian plan can provide much-needed energy for negotiations that could lead to a political settlement for ending the conflict. The plan should spur Egypt, Israel, and other Chemical Weapons Convention holdouts to join the treaty and take other, overdue steps needed to move the Middle East closer to becoming a zone free of all types of weapons of mass destruction.