Any progress toward taming the slaughter in Syria has to be a good thing. The past two weeks have brought a flurry of diplomatic activity resulting from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s “off-handed” remark that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid a military strike by turning over his chemical weapons.
Personally, I don’t believe Mr. Kerry’s remarks were off-handed, nor was the reporter’s question that initiated his response spontaneous. The diplomacy that followed, with Russia in an uncharacteristic lead role, was just a little too slick and well co-ordinated over a very short period and multiple time zones. Nevertheless, the result has been mildly encouraging regarding the continued use of chemical weapons in the 2-1/2-year civil war.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the focus has shifted from a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 on both sides, driven two million refugees to neighbouring countries and displaced several million more internally. The daily body count continues to rise, eclipsed by the euphoria surrounding the possible removal of a weapon responsible for perhaps 2,000 of those 100,000 deaths.
Syria’s chemical weapons are more strategic than tactical in their role. The country’s leadership saw them as a deterrent and a potential leveller living beside a nuclear-capable Israel. Although Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it has yet to ratify it, arousing suspicion that there are chemical stockpiles available if needed.
The challenges associated with destroying or removing 1,000 tonnes of Syrian chemicals, precursors and loaded rockets will be daunting. In 1985, Congress passed a law directing the U.S. Army to destroy its stockpile of 31,000 tonnes of chemical weapons. It didn’t happen.
The Chemical Weapons Convention, introduced in 1993 and effective in 1997, obliged the United States to destroy its stockpile by 2007. But two of the high-tech facilities being built to complete the task have yet to be completed. The new completion date for the final 10 per cent to be destroyed is 2023, and the estimated cost for the entire project is estimated at $40-million. (Russia has been doing somewhat better with its stockpile of over 40,000 tonnes. Moscow’s current estimated completion date is 2015.)
Considering the difficulties in dealing with chemical stockpiles during peacetime, the thought of doing so in a country engaged in civil war stretches the imagination. The sites need to be secured yesterday, and it’s highly unlikely that the international community will be able to find the thousands of “boots on the ground” necessary to do so.
Absent such troops, some very brave, unarmed volunteer United Nations monitors will have to be co-located at the various stockpile sites, protected (ironically) by soldiers of the Syrian Army. With no solution to the civil war on the horizon, this precarious arrangement may have a very short shelf life. The window of opportunity for destroying the weapons could easily slam shut.
Even if the sites do get secured under international supervision, the task of destroying or transferring them out of the country will be even more problematic. Destruction is highly technical and complicated, and demands expensive specialized infrastructure that can take years to build. To do this in the middle of a war with no front lines will border on the impossible.
Moving the chemicals out of Syria by road, sea or air is possible, but fraught with risk. Once again, the ongoing fighting complicates such movement – and finding a new home for them is even more challenging still. Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, which share borders with Syria, are unlikely to want them. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, will come under additional pressure to do so, but considering its current costs in dealing with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, NATO will have to foot the bill – probably at least $1-billion.
In a conflict providing little to no good news, it’s not surprising that a potential agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons is receiving so much attention. Regrettably, little will actually change on the battlefield.
With no good outcome possible for Washington no matter who wins, the conventional wisdom that an indefinite draw, with many more dead and displaced, ultimately leading to tired participants who ultimately agree to negotiate, is a pretty embarrassing best-case scenario.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was the first commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.