As a deal to end the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria heads to the United Nations for debate Monday, the framework is largely set: The Syrian government is to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to the international community in order to avoid an imminent attack from the West.
But as representatives of the U.N. member nations will see firsthand this week, a framework is only the start of a very complicated project.
The deal with Syria was an ad hoc diplomatic solution to the crisis that has left more than 100,000 dead in the country. In off-the-cuff remarks to reporters this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could stop prevent U.S.-led military strikes if he ceded control of his chemical weapons. The Russian foreign ministry seized on the opportunity, and Assad’s government—a longtime arms client of Russia’s—promised to comply.
“Right now it’s just a paper agreement between the United States and Russia. It needs some kind of international stamp of approval,” Tom Collina, the research director for the Arms Control Association, told MSNBC.com. “The goal is to give it the force of international law and have a greater number of countries behind it and give Syria the sense that if it doesn’t comply, there will be consequences.”
It is exactly those consequences, and whether they exist at all, that will be under intense debate at this week’s U.N. summit. Chapters 6 and 7, as they are known in U.N. parlance, provide for a path forward should Syria fail to comply with the disarmament agreement. Chapter 6, undoubtedly the Russians’ preference, would require the U.N. to mediate any compliance failures with the Syrian government. (As Assad’s most powerful remaining ally, Russia has repeatedly used its vote among the five permanent members of the Security Council to block any action against the Syrian regime.) Chapter 7, advocated by the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France, allows for the use of force.
It’s up to the UN member nations to bridge the two sides.
“If Russia isn’t happy with it, I don’t think it would go forward at all,” Colina said of the draft resolution. “As long as the resolution doesn’t explicitly authorize for military action, then I think Russia will support it.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin raised a few eyebrows at a Thursday summit with international business leaders and press when he cautioned that he could not be completely sure that the draft resolution brokered by his own country would be successful.
“I can’t say whether it will be possible to finalize these projects, but all that we have seen is reassuring that it will be done,” Putin said at the Valdai Club in Moscow.
Putin’s comments were at best a display of cautious pragmatism, and at worst, confirmation of the foot-dragging Obama administration officials have been speculating about.
“I think the fear is that this is a stalling tactic on the part of Assad and potentially on the part of the Russians again,” Phillipp Bleek, a former U.S. defense department arms control official who is now an assistant professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told MSNBC. “This is going to be one of the first tests to see how serious Assad is and how serious his Russian protectors are.”
But some argue it’s not in Russia’s interest to keep the chemical weapons arsenal in Assad’s control. U.N. inspectors are currently investigating 14 potential chemical attacks in Syria over the last two years.
“How absurd is it going to look if Russia vetoes this?” said Bruce Jones, a senior fellow and the director of the Managing Global Order at the Brookings Institution. ”It’ll look like this was a disingenuous ploy all along. I think Russia has some interest here in seeing these weapons come under international control, to some degree. It’s a question of who blinks.”
If the resolution does pass, the U.S., after making good on its promise to supply small arms to the anti-government forces, would have a vested interest in keeping the disarmament process on track.
“If you put yourself in Assad’s position and you try to explain his motivations, one possible interpretation is he’s trying to create an interest in the part of the west in having him remain in power. If he’s moving forward in this process, we have an interest in keeping him in power… but it may be difficult for us to play a two-sided game here to work with Assad to eliminate the weapons and to work with the rebels to push Assad out,” Bleek told MSNBC.
The U.N. could choose this week simply not to decide on enforcement mechanisms for the disarmament plan, and agree to convene again to discuss them if the Syrians renege on the deal. But the grey area surrounding who, exactly, defines a material breach and whether automatic action should be triggered, remains the heart of a debate the U.N. has seen before.
“We’re reliving the legal wars over Iraq,” Jones said. “Let’s say the resolution calls for Assad to do x and y; U.S. and Britain determine he hasn’t done x and y. Who officially makes that determination? What happens next?”
Jones cautioned that the diplomatic hurdles are only the preface to the challenges of disarmament in wartime.
“All we’re talking now is the diplomatic framework,” Jones said. “The actual logistics are a nightmare.”