It may not have been the result of grand strategy, but it looks like a face-saving political solution could allow us to step back from our plans to bomb Syria.
The president has agreed to take Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestion to the United Nations Security Council that Syria turn over its chemical weapons stockpile to international inspection and control. The skeptics are already arguing that the rapid Russian and Syrian agreement to this offer is just a delaying tactic. Some are calling for the U.S. air and missile strikes to go ahead, despite the developments of the past few days. We ought to be ready to take “yes” for an answer, but it won’t be easy.
I spent three years negotiating arms control and nonproliferation regimes with the Soviet Union and Russia, and a year in Moscow implementing a chemical weapons destruction agreement. That experience tells me that the task ahead in Syria is going to be long and difficult. us
Chemical weapons come in two types: old-style weapons in which all the elements that can trigger a toxic chemical attack are in one bomb or container. In more recent times, nations began to deploy “binary” chemical weapons, in which the toxic agent and the chemical that would trigger the release of that deadly agent were in separate containers. These were considered safer and less susceptible to accidental release.
Destruction of such weapons will be a monumental task — and costly, too. The U.S. stockpile (30,000 tons) is far greater than Syria’s but our own experience should serve as a warning. Our stockpile is being destroyed but it is taking longer (more than 20 years) and costing far more than we envisioned when we agreed with Russia to each destroy our respective weapons and precursor chemicals.
When I negotiated with the Russian chemical weapons “czar” in Moscow, we were discussing the Soviet Union’s stockpile of 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, some dating back to World War I. That destruction effort is also still ongoing to this day. It required building destruction furnaces with sophisticated environmental protection systems, training destruction technicians for what would become a lifelong effort for many of them, and developing emergency plans should anything go wrong.
These obstacles are not reasons to reject our own proposal to bring Syria’s arsenal under control but will require us to approach this problem carefully and patiently. Syria has a large stockpile of the old style “unitary” weapons. They cannot be quickly rounded up and stored safely. With a civil war going on, we do not want to demand that the government quickly load these weapons on trucks, which might be hijacked, only to be taken to marshaling sites that do not yet exist.
The task of controlling weapons need not immediately require that they be moved, but will demand something like military or civilian “boots on the ground” to monitor this first stage in what will be a long and expensive process. If we approach this with Russia as a joint effort we just might be able to pull it off — both of us have the trained experts needed to do the job.
We managed to avert a further escalation of the Syrian civil war. A way ahead to remove Assad’s chemical arsenal from his control has begun. Now, we need the patience to go about this in a way that carries out the task without undue delay or imprudent haste. Pursuing this task in a cooperative approach with Russia might even allow us, together, to find common ground for resolving the fundamental problems underlying the Syrian civil war.