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Making Sense of the Russian Syria Proposal

Charles Crawford’s response [1] to Russia’s gambit over Syrian chemical weapons is excessive, but he makes a fair point here:

There is no precedent for attempting anything like this in a country wracked by civil war. It just can’t happen. No Syrian chemical weapons will be destroyed or “handed over” quickly.

Meanwhile any new process of setting up an international monitoring and destruction regime will require painstaking UN and wider negotiation with the Assad regime, thereby giving Assad and his state apparatus a massive boost of renewed confidence and legitimacy.

Seizing on Kerry’s recent speculation about how a U.S. attack might be averted, Russia made a proposal that it had to assume that Western governments would reject outright or refuse to take seriously. Moscow has since added the condition that the U.S. “renounce the use of force” [2] against Syria, which Washington isn’t going to accept, so I’m not sure that the proposal will go anywhere. While the Russian proposal would seem to eliminate [3] what little support for attacking Syria there was in Congress, and the administration would be wise [4] to take this proposal as a convenient way out of the bind that it created for itself, I don’t see how the proposal would realistically be implemented. The deal could get the administration and the U.S. out of a mess they should never have been in, but it is just as likely that it could lead to the passage of a Security Council resolution that some governments could use as a fig leaf for later military intervention.

The administration’s plan for attacking Syria made no sense, but it’s also hard to ignore that the “solution” proposed by Moscow seems completely impractical. How would the proposed international monitors be able to operate in the middle of a civil war? Who would protect them? Which countries would be willing to put their people at risk to perform these tasks? In order to avert an “unbelievably small” military strike, Syria is going to permit the insertion of a U.N. mission of unknown size to move about the country? While this mission is trying to do its work, the conflict in Syria will continue unabated, and U.N. personnel will potentially be both targets and bystanders to whatever outrages the warring parties commit.

If there is some way to implement the proposal, I do have to wonder if the administration is willing to take yes for an answer. Administration officials have gone so far out on a limb rhetorically that it seems difficult to believe that they would be willing to accept a deal with Syria. Having dismissed the U.N. as irrelevant just last week, it is possible that the administration won’t be willing to pursue this alternative to an attack. I very much hope I’m wrong, but over the last few weeks the administration has given Americans absolutely no reason to be confident that they will make the wise or rational choice on Syria policy.

Update: As Max Fisher notes, Russia doesn’t seem to want the Security Council to pass a resolution on this proposal, and so may not really support doing it [5].

Second Update: As Yochi Dreazen points out [6], disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons would be very difficult:

Experts in chemical weapons disposal point to a host of challenges. Taking control of Assad’s enormous stores of the munitions would be difficult to do in the midst of a brutal civil war. Dozens of new facilities for destroying the weapons would have to be built from scratch, and completing the job would potentially take a decade or more. The work itself would need to be done by specially-trained military personnel. Guess which country has most of those troops? If you said the U.S., you’d be right [bold mine-DL].

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11 Comments To "Making Sense of the Russian Syria Proposal"

#1 Comment By Egypt Steve On September 10, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

On the assumption that Obama really does care about chemical weapons and his goal really is is to make certain that they are not used, while otherwise keeping out of the Syrian civil war, then foot-dragging on the part of the Syrian regime, and an accumulation of technical difficulties faced by monitors, are just as good as full implementation of the proposed plan. If the Syrians don’t use the weapons again, it’s all good. If they do, It’s going to be hard to stop a strike. They must know that.

#2 Comment By Frank OConnor On September 10, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

Is this the most bizarre concatenation of unpredictable events over the U.S. response to the Syrian chemical attacks or what? Time for the deep thinkers to step back and the comedians to take over. Could we start by re-naming Syria, Freedonia? And the biggest farce of all–Putin wins next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Sends in the clowns, the ones with the sad faces on.

#3 Comment By Andrew On September 10, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

the administration would be wise to take this proposal as a convenient way out of the bind that it created for itself

This is precisely the objective for Russia–to allow Obama to find the exit. Nobody in their own mind makes any illusions on the resolution of the internal conflict–the war will continue, the blood will continue to flow.

#4 Comment By Icarusr On September 10, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

I think you are misreading this one, as you have in face been doing since the whole chemical weapons thing happened. And I think this is because for whatever reason, you don’t want to take Obama at his word.

Egypt Steve is right. The whole thing makes sense – not desirable, but logical – if you accept the premise that the principal issue to which Obama objects as a matter of principle is the use of chemical weapons. And you do him injustice by saying that he dismissed the UN as irrelevant; indeed, that the Administration went to the UN as soon as the proposal came in suggests the opposite.

France, for one, will not accept the Russian condition. And it is unsustainable. It will be interesting, however, to see how this unfolds in the UNSC.

#5 Comment By Daniel Larison On September 10, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

Considering the display the administration has put on over the last few weeks, I can’t believe anyone would take Obama or his officials at their word at this point. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that they dismissed the U.N. as irrelevant. Samantha Power more or less said that they had given up on the U.N. on this issue, and she’s the ambassador to the U.N. There was no chance of getting what they wanted from the Security Council, and so they were going to bypass it. They have to feign interest in the proposal, but I would be truly surprised if they end up supporting it.

#6 Comment By Robert On September 10, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

This complaint seems reasonable on the face. But if the alternative is air and/or missle strikes…. Well, that has far less chance of destroying the weapons or preventing their future use (and makes them far less secure) than does the proposed monitoring regime.

#7 Comment By Andrew On September 10, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

And the biggest farce of all–Putin wins next year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The funny part is–Putin is as clueless as Obama on the issue of the application of force. Putin is absolutely oblivious to the fact that Russia has no way of influencing US military actions by countering them in some fashion as it used to be in the Soviet times. It is well established fact that Putin “military” cohort have been feeding him (granted that the seeds fell on the fertile soil) a steady diet of a “good news” re: armed forces’ reforms and strengthening. Reality, however, is very different and one of the issues which still keeps me on the edge is the fact that Putin, actually, may consider (and I have some reasons to believe) that the rag tag flotilla of the mostly obsolete remnants of once mighty Black Sea Fleet around Syria may provide him with desirable dynamics of peer-to-peer interaction.

I can almost see how Putin asks his admirals,

Putin: Are our ships ready to fulfill their combat tasks?
Admirals: Yes, comrade President, absolutely ready (loud)…to get sunk(whisper).

#8 Comment By Comrade Dread On September 10, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

The diplomatic gambit is a longshot, but it is one worth pursuing if only for the fact that it avoids the even worse outcome of getting the US involved in a war where we don’t belong.

Ironically, as you point out, the process for implementing the diplomatic solution might just involve having American boots on the ground in Syria performing dangerous operations.

That said, it would make sense for both Syria and the Syrian rebels to allow UN peacekeepers to come in for the purpose of removing chemical weapons from play. Syria because it avoids another combatant entering the war and the rebels to take one more weapon away from Assad.

#9 Comment By CharleyCarp On September 10, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

I think Egypt Steve has this right. The point of the exercise isn’t to actually destroy the CW, but to appear to have acted to prevent further use by the Syrian government. Even as the deal is being implemented slowly, it will have done that.

The other point, I guess, is to turn impending defeat in Congress into victory. Where before the arguments were silly — international credibility and domestic viability of the president — now members will be forced to decide whether to derail the best non-violent solution by voting against leverage, or to back the diplomatic solution. I don’t think this was the reason the Admin has accepted the Russian proposal, but I think it was immediately clear that the only way to win in Congress was to completely change the terms of the debate.

#10 Comment By Max Planck On September 10, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

The US maintains a facility for the destruction of chemical weapons:

[7]

It has been used not only to destroy U.S. stocks but those of other nations as well.

Some of the people here have gotten it right: the President established a “Red Line” to provide a deterrent against the use of WMD- that may have actually had an effect. If this gambit stops their use again, the policy will have been successful.

If not, the USS Nimitz will make certain it is.

#11 Comment By James Canning On September 10, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

Russia’s proposal in effect opens a way for diplomatic resolution of the civil war.