Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov are meeting in Geneva this week, both accompanied by dozens of arms-control experts. The focus is on the Russian proposal to take custody of, and then eliminate, all chemical weapons in Syria. Initially voiced as an off-the-cuff remark by Kerry — and immediately dismissed by him as unachievable — the proposal has become the subject of world attention. The Obama administration, while cautiously describing the Geneva talks as exploratory, must at some level share the widely held suspicion that the Putin initiative may be only a ruse or distraction intended to forestall a U.S. strike and protect the Assad regime, Moscow’s surest ally in the region.
This justifiable concern is magnified by the fact that time works against President Obama’s call to respond with force to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The more time that passes, the more the outrage over Assad’s mass murder of civilians by gas fades. The risk grows that the debate will shift from the need to punish Assad, and thereby deter others from using chemical weapons, to the topic of WMD proliferation more generally — and, specifically, to the longstanding call for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Almost certainly that would lead to the usual condemnation of Israel’s nuclear weapons, a standard fare of regional diplomacy. This may well be Russia’s intent, and Syria’s hope.
Russian motivations aside, it is likely that delay for any reason will further erode international and domestic support for the use of force. Now that the diplomatic process has begun, neither the U.N. secretary general nor the many heads of state and governments that opposed the use of force earlier will change their position. And those who were sitting on the fence will find it convenient to support diplomacy, even if it comes to an impasse. This is in part because diplomacy by its very nature never really ends. There will always be a call for one more effort; the number of exit ramps that can be pursued is infinite.
But the process of international diplomacy almost always takes time — lots of time — whether it is arms-control negotiations or a series of sanctions resolutions. It can take months for parties to agree on where to meet or on the shape of the table. Added to that, the complexity of the Syrian chemical-weapons challenge will ensure a long process; agreeing on verification and elimination procedures alone could require months of intense work. And the civil conflict on the ground will mean that extraordinary, and slow-moving, security measures will need to be in place before the real work can begin.
What needs to be done — and done now — is to test the feasibility of the Russian proposal. Perhaps the best way to do that is to place up front the need for Damascus to undertake three urgent actions that do not require extended diplomatic discussion. These are:
Demand that Assad publicly acknowledge that Syria has chemical weapons and formally commit to their elimination without conditions or reservations. Recently, Syrian officials have reportedly admitted possessing chemical arms and have suggested a willingness to give them up. But until these statements come from the top, there is no assurance that Assad’s subordinates will cooperate with those seeking information about the program or provide the assistance needed to secure and destroy the weapons.
Require that Syria agree to allow full and unfettered access to the key personnel, civilians and military, associated with its CW program. The information provided can be assessed by comparing what is said with what is known about the program.
Undertake now the destruction of all associated CW munitions (those not filled with agent) — aerial bombs, missile warheads, and artillery shells. It can be as simple as crushing the munitions with bulldozers.
When Libya agreed a decade ago to abandon its chemical-weapons and nuclear-weapons program, Tripoli was required to take similar steps, both to determine Qaddafi’s seriousness and to yield immediate results. All three steps can be taken in Syria within two weeks. None requires a lengthy discussion period. If Damascus objects, or if Moscow stalls, their intentions will be clear. On the other hand, if these actions are taken, we can move to the next step perhaps with greater, though still measured, confidence.
The Libyan leadership believed that it would be attacked after Iraq if it did not abandon its WMD program. They said so explicitly at the highest levels. This was the primary motivation that led to the outcome sought by the U.S. side. The perceived threat was credible, particularly in light of the rapid and total defeat of Iraq’s military by the U.S.-led coalition.
While many in the Obama administration and in both parties in Congress have stated that the United States must and will keep open the option of using force against Syria, the credibility of that option may well be in doubt — perhaps not in the West, but in Damascus. The U.S. pullback from Iraq and Afghanistan, the decline in U.S. military capabilities as a result of budget cuts, the division within Congress over the now-postponed vote on the use of force, and the opposition of the international community may all raise doubt in Assad’s mind. And it is Assad’s perspective that matters most.
This is not to detract from the need to keep the military option at the ready, but rather to caution that it is not enough to ensure that diplomacy is a viable alternative. We need to test Russia’s proposal by demanding Assad take the above three steps now.
— Robert Joseph is a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He was the lead negotiator in the WMD negotiations with Libya in 2003.