Syria: With Russia in the Lead, Vigilance Required

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by Wayne White

The main objective of the Russian chemical weapons (CW) initiative this week was to steer the US away from military action in Syria that might weaken the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Although Moscow also is concerned about CW falling into the hands of rebel extremists, it has less incentive than Washington to pressure its Syrian ally amidst the latter’s war against the Syrian opposition. While much of the world looks to Russia and the US to chart a way to achieve international goals on Syrian CW peacefully, the Russians will be working closely with Damascus in parallel to fashion the disarmament mission to the Syrian regime’s advantage. In addition to stretching out the timeline, another Russian-Syrian objective could be to use the process to create a measure of external dependence on and perhaps lend some badly needed legitimacy to Syria’s discredited dictatorship.

President Vladimir Putin’s bottom line in his New York Times editorial on Thursday is highly misleading: “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” Whatever emerges concerning the issue of Syrian CW, one must bear in mind that Syria is Russia’s only remaining Middle East ally, a major market for Russian weapons, and plays host to Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base.

Although claiming to defend international law against “ineffective and pointless” American style “brute force,” Putin has done most everything to assist the Assad regime’s widespread, often indiscriminate use of just that (reducing much of Syria to rubble) to suppress what was initially a reform movement, while opposing any use of force to punish the regime for what increasingly appears to have been a major violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol against chemical warfare. Finally, much of Putin’s rhetoric revolves around the extremist threat posed by the rebels, while skirting references to the Syrian regime’s own extensive barbarity. In fact, the regime’s ruthless repression since 2011 played a key role in driving many rebels toward greater radicalization.

The complex process of accessing, accounting for, seizing, and eliminating Syria’s huge CW arsenal might well be exploited by Damascus to assist its own cause against the rebels. The work at various CW sites, the sequencing of such access, as well as the inspectors’ need to move around other areas of the country to make sure CW has not been hidden elsewhere could be used to demand that the rebels cease fighting across broad stretches of territory (potentially providing any regime personnel accompanying the inspectors opportunities to collect information on rebel deployments). A telling signal of Putin’s desire to give the regime as much maneuvering room as possible in all this was Moscow’s immediate rejection of France’s proposal to include in the relevant UN Security Council resolution a tough enforcement clause.

Just the amount of time required to catalogue, transport and dispose of Syria’s CW arsenal (possibly years) is likely to provide the regime with respites it could exploit to revive its battered military. Meanwhile, to weaken the rebels, Assad might argue, for example, that all lethal aid to them (on the part of the US, reportedly just getting under way) cease, or demand certain local rebel withdrawals to supposedly facilitate the work of the inspectors. During this lengthy process, Assad could at times halt cooperation unless his demands are met (such as his latest: the US must renounce any potential use of force against his regime). Absent a tough enforcement mechanism, the international community would have little clout with which to push back via the UN.

Furthermore, Assad’s agreement to sign the 1925 Geneva Protocol is no guarantee–just an opening formality. Egypt signed the protocol, but later used Mustard Gas against the side it opposed in the 1960s Yemen Civil War. Italy’s Benito Mussolini accepted the protocol during his early years in power, only to turn round abruptly in the mid-1930s and use Mustard Gas in his war against Ethiopia. Japan, also a signatory, attacked Chinese forces amidst hostilities in the 1930s with both chemical and biological weapons.

It is not surprising that even the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) working with the West has reacted negatively to the emerging arrangement. They know all too well that Moscow has stood by the brutally repressive regime against which they have fought and are shocked to find Russia now at the head of the diplomatic table. Also, with the UN inspection report on the August 21 Damascus CW attack reportedly set for release on Monday (amidst rising evidence the regime carried out the attack), the opposition was stunned as focus abruptly shifted from punishing the Assad regime to cooperating with it on a CW arsenal the same regime previously denied it possessed. Nevertheless, any lack of cooperation on the part of the opposition would make Assad & Co. appear reasonable by comparison.

The Russian proposal, however, should be explored fully. That said, while a peaceful way out of this aspect of the Syrian conflict is preferable, all concerned must also proceed cautiously given Moscow’s stake in the Assad regime. An additional great advantage to most everyone would be to remove Syria’s CW arsenal from the battlefield so no party to the conflict could gain further access to it–neither the regime nor rebel extremists. Yet, although the current approach stems from a likely regime atrocity, if Assad agrees, for the most part, to cooperate in dismantling his CW arsenal in a timely manner, the international community could become vested in an otherwise loathsome regime for a long time as the sole guarantor of that process.

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Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.