The willingness of the United States and Russia to come together to prevent further use of chemical weapons while implicitly accepting the brutal killing of civilians with conventional weapons should convince any despot that chemical weapons are not worth the trouble.
On September 27, the UN Security Council approved a binding resolution to take control of Syria’s entire stockpile of chemical weapons and destroy it by mid-2014. The agreement marked a major breakthrough for the Security Council, which had not yet taken any action on Syria, and a way for President Barack Obama to avoid taking military action without congressional authorization. While this progress is commendable, the agreement stands little chance of forcing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to surrender all of his chemical weapons. Such an outcome falls short of the Security Council’s ambitious goals, but will nonetheless achieve the three primary objectives of the U.S. airstrike that it replaced: “To deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”
UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2118 is unlikely to succeed in eliminating all of Syria’s chemical weapons because the Security Council has little ability to prevent Assad from keeping a small cache (for its original purpose as a deterrent against Israel). Although the United States and Russia have praised Assad for his cooperation thus far, they should not expect this cooperation to be complete or long-lasting. Michael Morell, the recently retired deputy director of the CIA, told Foreign Policy that he “[does] not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons,” which “are easy to hide and easy to move around.” The Wall Street Journal reports that the Syrian military scattered its chemical weapons to as many as 50 sites in anticipation of a U.S. airstrike, making detection more difficult and reducing confidence that U.S. intelligence agencies know where the weapons are located.
From the time Russia proposed the framework that led to UNSCR 2118, Syria had three weeks to hide the weapons before inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived. Even with inspectors on the ground, they must depend on the Syrian military for protection, potentially limiting their access to both declared and undeclared sites suspected of having chemical weapons. UN inspectors were in Damascus on August 21, investigating unrelated chemical attacks, when the Syrian military allegedly used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 civilians in one of the city’s suburbs. Assad then prevented UN inspectors from leaving their hotel for days as the Syrian military bombed the area to destroy evidence. As long as it is difficult for inspectors to know whether or not they have accounted for all of Syria’s chemical weapons, Assad retains little incentive to give them all up.
U.S. reluctance to intervene militarily and Russian opposition to the use of force also allow Assad latitude for a small degree of noncompliance. Assuming a reasonable degree of cooperation from Assad, the United States will not suddenly abandon the agreement upon discovering that a small amount of chemical arms went “mistakenly” undeclared. Before August 21, Assad had tested the credibility of President Obama’s original red line on chemical weapons with impunity by using them only on a small scale. Only a flagrant violation of that red line and 1,400 dead civilians brought the United States close to direct military action. Assad may still test the line when it comes to hiding chemical agents or dragging out the process, but any future chemical attack would be an enormous diplomatic failure and would bolster support for a U.S. airstrike. The Syrian military now faces a more credible deterrent against even limited use of chemical weapons.
Further use of these weapons would also betray Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has fought to protect Assad from military intervention and even condemnation from the Security Council. As the major broker of this agreement, Putin has much to gain if it succeeds. Having denied the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons despite overwhelming evidence, Putin also depends on this implausible narrative to legitimize his protection of Assad. If the plan succeeds in preventing further chemical attacks, few will care that Putin rejected the UN’s findings. If further chemical attacks occur, other members of the Security Council will view Putin’s plan as a conspiracy to delay military action. Russia would then be pressured to stop supplying Syria with conventional weapons and to allow the Security Council to authorize military action.
The presence of UN investigators and specialists working to dispose of chemical agents will also degrade the Syrian military’s ability to actually use these weapons. There will be more scrutiny than ever before and any weapons that have been disclosed will be inaccessible. Syria will have fewer chemical weapons and means for their production, restricting Assad’s ability to use them against opposition forces or civilians. Though the military is likely to hide a small reserve of chemical agents, they will only remain hidden if they are far out of reach. Lastly, the U.S. has argued that both the proposed airstrikes and UNSCR 2118 would uphold the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons by deterring their use in other countries. The willingness of the United States and Russia to come together to prevent further use of chemical weapons while implicitly accepting the brutal killing of civilians with conventional weapons should convince any despot that chemical weapons are not worth the trouble.
Accounting for, securing and destroying all of Syria’s chemical weapons is a daunting task; doing so in a war zone in under a year will be nearly impossible. Though the UN may not completely achieve its ambitious goals, it will make significant progress in confiscating and destroying the majority of Syria’s chemical weapons. More importantly, it made Russia a stakeholder in the U.S. effort to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons, degrade his ability to use them and help uphold the international norm against them. The major weakness of UNSCR 2118 is not that it will leave some chemical weapons behind, but that it leaves so much of the violence done by conventional weapons unaddressed.
Andrew Bianco is an M.A. Candidate in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He previously studied at Boston College and currently works at the AARP Public Policy Institute. All views expressed are his own.
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