WASHINGTON — The ambitious international effort to take control of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, which seemed a pipe dream just weeks ago, has gathered momentum with a rapid-fire succession of dizzying diplomatic milestones.
The United Nations Security Council on Friday night unanimously approved a resolution requiring Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish his stock of poison gases by mid-2014. International inspectors are expected to arrive in Syria by Tuesday — more than a month ahead of an already accelerated schedule — to begin the complex process of removing, dismantling or destroying the illicit arms.
Most surprising of all, Assad is cooperating so far, disclosing dozens of chemical production and storage sites and pledging to let the foreign experts do their jobs. He has signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty that bans the production, storage and use of chemical weapons.
Until two weeks ago, the embattled leader had refused to admit possessing what experts describe as about 1,100 tons of blister agents and neurotoxins. He still denies U.S. accusations that his security forces fired artillery rockets filled with deadly sarin nerve gas on civilians last month in the outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian capital, which U.S. officials say killed more than 1,400 people.
On Friday, President Obama described the diplomatic progress as “a potentially huge victory for the international community” and a validation of his strategy to threaten targeted missile strikes to pressure Assad while also pushing a diplomatic process aimed at ending Syria’s bitter civil war.
The disarmament plan, the first ever launched in the throes of a civil war, is still in its infancy. And it could easily fail.
“Had anyone asked me four weeks ago how likely was Syrian accession to the [chemical weapons treaty], I would have said zero,” said Ralf Trapp, a former chemical weapons inspector now based in France. “The process has now started, and the real challenges lie ahead.”
But the Obama administration’s unlikely diplomatic partners — the governments in Moscow and Damascus — both have much to gain from the disarmament plan.
Russia, Assad’s main international backer and arms supplier, has reasserted its muscle on the international stage. President Vladimir Putin wants to be seen as a peacemaker who stopped the United States from attacking his chief Middle East ally, and thus prevented a widening of the Syrian conflict.
Assad presents himself as a statesman willing to deal with the United Nations and the global community. The timetable in the deal also in effect buys him a year to consolidate his gains on the battlefield while opposition forces, including Islamist militant groups loyal to Al Qaeda, continue to splinter and struggle.
“Assad is playing for time, avoiding a [U.S.] military strike, and gaining leverage with both Russia and the U.S. against his rebel enemies,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the blog Syria Comment. “He knows that the only thing the U.S. fears more than Assad with chemical weapons is the rebels with chemical weapons.”
Assad also knows that if he complies with international demands and gives up his chemical arsenal, he will gain leverage to obtain more conventional weapons from Russia, Landis said.
For Obama, ridding Syria of chemical weapons would be a clear foreign policy victory at a time when his poll numbers are falling and his domestic policies are in disarray. After weeks of vacillating on whether he would order missile strikes to punish Assad for the Aug. 21 chemical attack, Obama now says he has a diplomatic path for ending the Syrian war.
The agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Sept. 14 marked a new page in a U.S.-Russian relationship that had been badly strained, particularly after Moscow granted temporary asylum this summer to Edward Snowden, the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor who has exposed U.S. surveillance operations around the globe.
Less clear is what happens if Assad reneges on the legally binding deal. If he is found in noncompliance, the matter would go back to the Security Council, where Russia holds a veto. A second resolution would be required to impose measures under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, including use of military force.
“The question is what will the international community do when Assad doesn’t fulfill his end of the bargain?” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The answer is more debate.”
Then comes the challenge of the inspection itself.
The technical operation will be carried out by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, which monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. A draft plan released by the group Friday notes the “extraordinary character” of the Syrian mission, which will take place under the shortest deadlines and gravest security risks the organization has ever faced.
The draft calls for inspections to begin Tuesday — the Geneva agreement had called for the team to arrive by the end of November — and said the inspectors would require “immediate and unfettered” access to begin to destroy all chemical weapons production and equipment used to mix the toxins and load them onto munitions.
Experts said the swift timeline suggests Assad’s estimated 700 tons of sarin and VX nerve agent is still in liquid precursor chemicals that haven’t been mixed and readied for use in munitions. Destroying those chemicals, or the mixing equipment, is much simpler than getting rid of the lethal gases they can produce.
“If that is correct, things will be going fast and much easier than expected,” Trapp said.
Assad is believed to also have produced 300 tons of sulfur mustard, a blister agent that caused ghastly injuries and death in the trenches of World War I. Destroying the long-lasting materiel “will need some careful planning and execution,” he said.
With only a few hundred employees on staff, the chemical weapons organization said it would seek urgent funding to hire and train more inspectors on a contract basis. It is not yet clear who will provide their security in the midst of a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
“This is a completely new experience and we all will have many surprises on the way,” Trapp said.