The notion of securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles has been kicking around since last June, but acquired a new lease on life this Monday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed it as an alternative to military intervention, bouncing off an apparent press conference gaffe by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In principle, it’s a great idea. Assad packs up his sarin, ships it off to Moscow for disposal, UN inspectors roll in to verify that the whole stock is accounted for, and however long the civil conflict rages on, at least nobody is getting gassed. In practice, it’s highly unlikely to actually play out that way: Syria and Russia’s intentions are doubtful and the logistical problems with disposing of the weapons are possibly insurmountable. However, that’s not a reason to run away from the plan. If anything, the Obama administration should embrace it completely, if only because it shifts the world’s focus to the diplomatic grunt work that is most likely to help bring about the end of Syria’s bloody civil war.
No sooner had the Kremlin proposed the plan than it began raising objections to the very UN Security Council resolution that would be necessary to implement it. A French draft of the resolution met with swift disapproval from Moscow for holding the Assad regime responsible for the August 21 chemical attacks and for authorizing the use of force to uphold its requirements under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Russia is insisting on no threat of force, and absent a plan to punish Assad if he fails to declare and hand over his CW on a set timetable, the resolution lacks teeth. Granted, getting Russia behind even a toothless Security Council resolution would be a notable step forward, since they’ve vetoed even the weakest of such resolutions before, but Russia doesn’t even seem all that inclined to handle this through the Security Council in the first place. Meanwhile, Syria’s agreement to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention doesn’t mean the regime has any plans to actually abide by it. Or are we all just taking murderous dictators at their word now?
Even if both Damascus and Moscow are acting responsibly, the actual logistics of pulling this off are pretty frightening. Even in ideal peacetime conditions, it could take years to secure and verify Syria’s “hundreds of tons of mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents.” In the vast battlefield that Syria has become, it could well be impossible. UN chemical weapons inspectors were already greeted last month with sniper fire and will be reluctant to go where their safety cannot be even remotely ensured. Security is not the only concern, either: It's not simply a matter of loading the weapons into trucks and shipping them off to the dump. Disposing of these toxic chemicals requires extensive planning, coordination, and verification that in turn require heavy international involvement on the ground. In the current conditions, it is doubtful whether this process could be carried out at all, much less according to the speedy time frame the U.S. and its allies demand.
Yet while the plan seems to stand on pretty weak legs, Obama would be wise to do all he can to help push it forward. There are some good signs amid the dubious intentions: for one thing, it’s a huge shift for both Moscow and Damascus to admit that the Syrian regime even has chemical weapons in the first place. In the unlikely event that the Russian plan works, Obama will have averted an unpopular military engagement and allowed Russia to exercise some constructive leadership on the Syria issue for once. On the other hand, if Putin turns out to be bluffing, Obama’s best move is to call the bluff, push as hard as he can on the diplomatic track, and dare the Kremlin to stall or scuttle its own proposal. Remember how the U.S. was going to start talking to Iran again now that they have a nice new president? Now would be a great time to get on that train, seeing as Iranian engagement would likely be a key factor in any successful international effort to resolve the crisis.
Diplomacy isn’t going to bring about peace anytime soon, but neither are Tomahawk missiles. The parties will have to sit down and talk eventually and the sooner the international stakeholders in Syria acknowledge that the only durable solution is dialogue, the better. If it all falls through, well, Obama emerges with a much stronger case for that military intervention — not that it will necessarily become a good idea. Meanwhile, there's a lot we can do to help the Syrian people that doesn't involve bombing them, like providing more aid to countries suffering under the weight of two million refugees, or taking in a few of our own.