international analysis and commentary

Eliminating chemical weapons in Syria: will it really work? A conversation with Riccardo Redaelli


The Syrian chemical weapons deal pulled off by the United States and Russia seems like a win-win situation for all parties. The US avoided an expensive war, Russia found its way back into the international spotlight and Syria gained precious time. But is the deal really feasible? We asked Riccardo Redaelli, a Professor of Geopolitics and an Aspenia online contributor who worked in Iraq from 2005-2012 on the re-direction of Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological scientists.

According to the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” Assad is required to provide a catalogue of his chemical arsenal and the locations of his research, storage and production sites within a week. By November inspectors will be on the ground and by mid-2014 the program should be eliminated. Also based on similar precedents (for instance Iraq), are these deadlines too ambitious, especially considering the violent conditions on the ground?

I tend to consider these deadlines more as a demonstration of political will and a pressure tool than a realistic timeframe. All programs of elimination of chemical and biological weapons are very complex, time-consuming and extremely costly – as demonstrated by all previous cases. Who will pay for the Syrian program? And how would it be possible to keep such an unrealistic scheme in a country devastated by a bloody civil war? More than focusing on the deadlines, for the time being, it is important to agree on a methodology and on a credible, realistic program.

Assad is responsible for protecting the inspectors under the plan and the highest military authority of the “Free Syrian Army” that opposes the regime, General Idris, has said that he will cooperate with the inspectors. This sounds good on paper, but will it really work without a ceasefire and what challenges should we expect for inspectors/verifiers?

Assad can hardly protect himself in Damascus! That’s the reality on the ground. So, it is impossible to imagine hundreds of UN technicians and experts working within the country towards destroying the Syrian chemical arsenal. Moreover, this would require the shipment to Syria of delicate, vulnerable and costly equipment, which sounds rather absurd under current conditions. International experts working on chemical weapons sites should be protected. But who will do that? The Syrian army? The rebels (who have already seized some local deposits)? Is the international community going to trust Al-Qaeda affiliated organizations for not targeting its inspectors while they are in the country?

The only reasonable solution is to send Syrian chemical weapons abroad. Everyone is speaking about Russia as a possible destination. The problem is how. There are international legal obstacles for moving chemical and biological weapons outside a country – Russia will need a special authorization by international bodies. Another obstacle is represented by the possible route, since there is no geographical continuity between Syria and Russia, and I foresee many obstacles either for a maritime or a land route. Paradoxically, the safer way might be through Iran, but I do not think this would be politically acceptable for Washington.

The US and Russia have been trying for the past 15 years to eliminate their arsenals. What parallels and differences exist between Syria and other countries that have already worked to dismantle their chemical weapons programs?

We know that all non-conventional weapon dismantling processes are very long, complex and expensive, even when the government is cooperating with the international communities (such as in the Libyan case) or when the security conditions are acceptable for the international inspectors (such as in post-1991 Iraq). The examples of the US and Russia show us how their programs have required time and have faced obstacles, unexpected delays and so on. In Syria, it is simply unimaginable to carry on such an effort without a truce (at least partial) between the parties involved. In any case, it is important to have a credible list of the chemical weapons sites and deposits from Damascus (if Assad still has the control over them). The best example for Syria of a dismantling program is likely that of Libya, although the Syrian one is wider. Also, beyond the effective material destruction of the arsenal, we should focus on the redirection of Syrian military scientists – which is probably an even more important task.

Obama showed the world that he is serious about negotiations as a solution to what appears to be an intractable problem. The recently elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was obviously watching. If successful, what could the chemical weapons deal in Syria mean for the Iranian situation?

It has been confirmed that Obama and Rouhani exchanged messages through indirect channels. And this is a positive step. As a matter of fact, the idea of a diplomatic solution which completely bypasses Tehran sounds simply absurd. Moreover, it might be a signal that Washington recognizes Iran as a legitimate regional actor (an issue which is extremely important for Tehran, due to its obsession with being isolated and marginalized).

However, all of our past experiences tell us that in Washington, in the region and in Tehran, there are forces that work to sabotage  any attempt to outreach “the Enemy”. Rouhani is a pragmatist who knows the West. And his team is probably the best Iranians could have for serious negotiations with the international community and with the US. Unfortunately, Rouhani has a limited grasp on this issue.

My feeling is that even the hardliners and the Pasdaran are open to some form of compromise (though not  to surrender) over Syria – if it is part of a more comprehensive pattern of negotiation. For sure, the Pasdaran can be proud of their capacity on the ground: their most famous commander, Qassem Suleimani (once the “most powerful man of Iraq”) is behind Assad’s military resistance.

Putin also proved to be serious about negotiations (though on his own terms, which could prove problematic). If the framework holds, could a deal on conventional weapons involving arms supplied to Syria from the US and Russia be a next step?

It’s difficult to say and very improbable as long as the Gulf countries (plus some Western ones) are pursuing their own programs of military assistance to the rebels. A deal on conventional weapons might only be a part of a wider diplomatic agreement on Syria. Putin probably has a vested interest in a sort of  continuing military stalemate in which his Syrian ally does not lose ground. As for  Washington, the Gulf countries and some EU countries, their main concern is the failure of the insurgency, despite the emphasis on protecting the civilian population. Given all this, the paradox is that after some recent military successes at Homs and in other strategic locations, crushing the rebels might actually prove counterproductive for Assad and his supporters by almost forcing other powerful actors to intervene.

Along with Putin, the UN is now back in the spotlight in regards to the Syrian crisis. Could you talk about the UN role – its traditional strengths and weaknesses – and their importance in the success of the deal?

The UN can play an effective role – both at a diplomatic level and on the ground – but only in the frame of an agreement (even an informal one) between Moscow and Washington. Until now it has been very ineffective, due also to its traditionally prudent “rule of engagement” for its officials working in the field and to its historical constrains within UN Security Council. A factor limiting its role is also the division within the G20, even among the BRICs, over Syria.