Drawing the Syrian poison

Syria Map

(Russia Beyond the Headlines – rbth.ru – Yevgeny Shestakov, special to RBTH; Yevgeny Shestakov is Editor of the international politics desk at Rossiyskaya Gazeta. – September 23, 2013)

Reporting from last week’s Valdai Club meeting as part of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s press retinue, Yevgeny Shestakov canvasses expert Russian opinion ­ both on and off the record ­ on the nation’s hopes and fears for a Syrian settlement.

It is beginning to look unrealistic to expect the UN Security Council to accept a resolution on Syria before the end of September as US Secretary of State John Kerry has called upon it to do. The forthcoming meeting of the Russian and US foreign ministers at the UN General Assembly, which will convene this week in New York, will not smooth over the differences that have again emerged between the White House and the Kremlin. According to sources close to the Russian presidential administration, Moscow believes that it was lied to.

An adult discussion

After his appointment as Secretary of State, John Kerry invited Sergei Lavrov to “act like adults” in one of the first meetings with his Russian counterpart. The agreement between Russia and the United States to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons is, in fact, the first example of how the two countries can solve the most pressing international issues. But according to sources close to the Russian diplomatic missions, the document agreed upon by Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov, which presented a road map for destroying Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpiles, was later distorted.

Contrary to the agreement, the representatives of France, Britain and the United States submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council on Syria that contained, besides the plan for the destruction of chemical weapons, references to a United Nations article that permits the use of military force against Damascus. According to the authors of the resolution, if the Assad regime violates any of its commitments, a strike could be justified.

According to sources close to the Kremlin, nothing like that was discussed when Mr Lavrov and Mr Kerry met. Moscow is pushing for its western partners to stick to the plan that was previously agreed. It called for Syria to join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and, on the basis of recommendations from this organisation, for the UN Security Council to adopt resolutions without reference to possible sanctions against Damascus. If Syria does not fulfil its promises, Moscow proposes adopting another resolution that would authorise sanctions against the Assad regime. Thus, as they say, the Russian Foreign Ministry proposes to “separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Another principal agreement, according to sources close to the Russian-American talks, was that the American side would refrain from making further threats against the president of Syria, so that he could fulfil his obligations. But apparently Washington interpreted the Geneva talks between Mr Lavrov and Mr Kerry differently. In addition to the resolution approving a military strike on Syria, the US announced plans to transfer the case of Bashar al-Assad to the International Criminal Court and began collecting evidence of crimes against humanity. Thus, according to the Kremlin, political forces in Washington are set on a course to break down the Geneva agreements reached by Mr Lavrov and Mr Kerry, or to revise them to their advantage.

According to sources close to the negotiations, as a compromise Russia can add to the Security Council resolution its willingness to examine any violations Damascus makes of the plan for the destruction of chemical weapons. But the issue will be discussed only in subsequent resolutions.

No plan B

Does Russia have a “Plan B” in the event that the Assad regime does not fulfil its obligations? According to sources close to the Kremlin, it does not. Moscow believes that the Syrian side will not break its promises if the West sticks to the plan agreed to by Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov in Geneva. At the same time, Moscow is not sure that Washington and its allies will refrain from using force to overthrow the Syrian regime, even if Damascus destroys its chemical weapons, especially since the White House once again called the Assad regime illegitimate and has said it does not want to see Assad in power in the future Syria.

Who will destroy the chemical weapons and where will they do it? Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made it clear that Russia may join the international coalition that will take on this task. But this does not mean that Moscow will do it alone. According to Kommersant, the military is holding consultations “regarding the size of the contingent”, which should be sent to Syria. It is assumed that the group will include radiation, chemical and biological safety experts from the Russian armed forces. It is also possible that a special forces unit will be sent to the site of the operation.

The parties have agreed that soldiers from Russia, the US and several European countries (possibly France and Britain) will be involved in securing the perimeter of the area where the work will be carried out. Their participation in the operation may reduce the risk that the Syrian opposition could provoke an attack. However, the issue of ensuring the safety of the personnel engaged in the operation on the battlefield remains key. There may end up being as many as 10,000 people from different countries involved in the destruction of the chemical weapons.

Time and money

According to preliminary estimates, the operation will cost more than $1bn (£624,000m) and will take at least a year. But the time needed, experts say, depends on many factors. Syria’s internal conflict may significantly increase the costs associated with the removal of toxic substances and the time needed to complete it.

The director general of the OPCW, Ahmet Üzümcü, said that the founding document of the organisation will come into force for Syria on October 14. The country will become the 190th member state of the organisation. This means that Syria must provide a complete inventory of its chemical weapons, production equipment, and related materials as soon as possible.

Who launched the gas attack?

America continues to insist that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical attack on a Damascus suburb that killed anywhere from 500 to 1,400 people on August 21. According to Washington, the report of the UN inspectors confirmed the guilt of the Syrian regime. In turn, Damascus handed evidence to the UN that it said showed the crime was committed by the rebels. According to sources close to the Kremlin, the document presents data showing the missiles were equipped with homemade weapons.

Briefly, the evidence is as follows: first, the regular Syrian army does not have the type of rockets found at the scene of the chemical attack. They were manufactured in the Sixties in the Soviet Union and at that time were sold to about 50 different countries. Second, Russia never gave Syria warheads with chemical agents. The rockets fired did not have a guidance system or the so-called precursor that conventional Soviet missiles were equipped with. Third, hand-made sarin cylinders were found in the area of the chemical attack. Fourth, according to intelligence services, the area from which, according to the Americans, the rockets were fired was not fully controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

Finally, another little-known fact: in March several people were detained by the Syrian military in possession of a cylinder of sarin at the Turkish-Syrian border. However, the UN did not investigate the incident, despite requests from Damascus. According to Russian intelligence services, about 75% of the groups fighting in Syria against the Assad regime are directly or indirectly related to al-Qaeda; some are on the American list of terrorist organisations.

Overlapping interests

What steps will Russia and the United States take, if it is proved that Damascus didn’t order the chemical attack? To my knowledge, Lavrov and Kerry did not discuss this issue at their meeting in Geneva, since the official version of the events will not allow either Moscow or Washington to retreat in the future. So, what does the immediate future hold for  Syria?

There is no consensus in the Russian expert community or in the administration. In his conversation with me, the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Vitaly Naumkin, proposed that, when assessing the future of Syria, researchers should abandon the traditional approach and look at how the interests of the major geopolitical players overlap.

Currently, the interests of Russia and the West overlap much more than they conflict. The parties both favour the destruction of weapons of mass destruction in Syria, assisting Syrian refugees and taking on the radicals. As for the possible scenarios, according to Professor Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, there could be at least three outcomes. They include the situation of a strike on Syria with or without a UN Security Council resolution, in the event that Assad deceives the international community to hang on to power until the next elections in Syria. All agree that it is very difficult to predict how the situation will develop. One thing my sources are very sure about is that “Syria will not fall apart. No one is interested in seeing this.”

Speaking at the closing session of the Valdai Club, which brings together 200 experts from more than 30 countries, Sergei Ivanov, head of the Russian presidential administration, joked that the Cold War was a haven for political scientists, because everything in the world was clear and events not so hard to predict. Today, said Mr Ivanov, it was impossible to predict what would happen in the world tomorrow.

For Russia and the West, the events in Syria are a clear example of how unpredictable international relations have become. But at the same time, the response to the crisis demonstrates that Moscow and Washington are able to put together a concerted initiative to resolve world conflicts when both parties respect the rules of “fair play”.