The international community stepped back from a potential escalation of the Syria’s civil war on Sept. 14. U.S. and Russian diplomats negotiated an agreement about the status of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal — an event which may or may not prolong an American attack against the Middle Eastern nation.
The “Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” possesses several strategic ramifications:
• It directly involves the United Nations.
• The framework achieves the Obama administration’s objective of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program — on paper at least.
• It enhances Russia’s strategic clout.
• A key concern is whether the agreement is implementable within the allowed timeframe.
The agreement augments role of the U.N. plus the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — the entity responsible for implementing the international ban on chemical weapons. It requires Assad to provide a complete list of the “names, types and quantities of (Syria’s) chemical weapons agents, (and) types of munitions.” The framework mandates Damascus to additionally include within the list the “location, form of storage, production and research/development facilities” of Syria’s chemical weapons program. It requires Syria to provide the above by approximately Sept. 21 (an obligation the Assad regime fulfilled). The framework establishes a November deadline for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to, one, finish on-site inspections of Syria’s chemical weapons facilities; and, two, destroy Assad’s production plus mixing and filing equipment. The agreement gives the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons until mid-2014 to neutralize the various storage, deployment and additional logistical elements of Assad’s chemical weapons program. The framework mandates the U.N. Security Council with initiating punitive measures under the organization’s Chapter VII — if Assad’s adherence is questionable. Finally, the agreement requires Washington and Moscow to coordinate their efforts with the U.N. throughout the process.
The framework achieves the Obama administration’s objective of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program; it also augments the Kremlin’s diplomatic influence. Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 brought the United States close to direct involvement in Syria’s civil war. A strong probability exists that Washington would have pursued military action, if Moscow hadn’t initiated negotiations on the issue prior to the president’s national address. The agreement prevented an attack, for now. What cannot be discounted is a future American strike, possibly in November or mid-2014, if Assad fails to comply with the agreement.
The agreement enhances Russia’s strategic clout in Syria and at the United Nations. Moscow probably initiated the ideas leading to the framework since Russia may have feared a U.S. attack may have expanded to include regime change. A new government in Damascus might have evicted Russia from using Syria’s naval facility plus intelligence gathering bases at Tartus and Lakatia. Such an event would have decreased Russia’s strategic presence in the Mediterranean. The framework’s timeline allows Moscow to further buttress Assad’s military forces. It also strengthens Russia’s influence on the issue at the United Nations. An augmentation of the U.N. Security Council’s involvement will occur providing Assad’s compliance is doubted. Moscow will probably pursue a loose interpretation of Chapter VII Articles 39-40, if the aforementioned occurs. Both furnish measures for assessing if a situation warrants non-diplomatic action. Moscow will take a similar approach towards Articles 41-42. Those detail instruments the Security Council can utilize if diplomacy fails to resolve a crisis. Russia’s objective will involve keeping Assad in power — regardless if it’s via the U.N. or the agreed-upon framework.
A vital challenge will entail implementing the framework’s tenets within the allocated timeframe. The first hurdle will involve obtaining a complete, accurate accounting of Assad’s chemical weapons supply. Syria possesses an estimated 1,000 tons of mustard, VX, and Sarin gas, according to French intelligence officials. A second issue is locating the entirety of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. There are at least 40 suspected munitions-linked sites; many are in the vicinity of the civil war’s various combat zones. Some of those facilities are of interest to different rebel groups — groups that may seek to hinder the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’s efforts toward obtaining and destroying those weapons. A third concern regards the Assad regime. Will it completely comply with the framework’s terms? Will the Syrian authorities adhere to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’s requests for information — information which may insinuate non-compliance? How accurate will the information be? Will the regime allow the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’s inspectors unconditional access to its various chemical weapons’ sites? The final issue is who will protect the inspectors, especially when they enter areas in or near the civil war’s front lines? The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’s task is challenging, but it is not insurmountable especially with the U.N., U.S. and Russian’s oversight and assistance.
Assad’s Aug. 21 deployment of chemical weapons mobilized the international community’s efforts to enforce the ban of chemical weapons. A significant unknown is whether the implementation will occur via the framework’s peaceful approach, or if the U.S. will pursue military action with/without the U.N., NATO or the Arab League’s support. Time will tell.
Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.