President Obama is pursuing a last-ditch effort at a diplomatic solution to secure control of Syria’s chemical weapons, but the Russian-backed plan is full of potential pitfalls and could cement strongman Bashar Assad’s hold on the war-torn country, foreign policy experts warn.
In an address to the nation Tuesday President Obama said he would hold talks on a proposal to force the Syrian regime to hand over its arsenal of toxic weapons to international inspectors, even as he made the case for a forceful military strike on Syria if negotiations faltered.
Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart will meet in Geneva on Thursday to begin talks, but the path ahead is full of uncertainties and stumbling blocks.
Critics of the approach fear that Russia, an ally of Assad, may be stalling to keep the leader in power.
The White House on Wednesday declined to lay a timeline for the administration’s efforts to reach a deal on Syria.
“I don't have a timeline to give you,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. “What I can say is that it obviously will take some time."
He cautioned though that the U.S. would not allow Moscow and Damascus to engage in “delaying tactics.”
The administration was also vague about what a diplomatic solution would look like.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. would seek a binding U.N. Security Council resolution that is both “credible and verifiable.”
Psaki said that questions about the elements or language of such a resolution were premature.
“We're working towards a goal of working them,” she said of talks with Russia and Syria. “I can't predict what will or won't come out of the U.N. Security Council.”
If the Russian-proffered plan solidifies, certain aspects are clear: the U.S. would be forced to depend on Assad's cooperation in disarming his chemical weapons, a complex operation that would require months, if not years to complete and would be further complicated by the chaos of an ongoing civil war.
“We have made partners with the Assad regime,” said Jeremy Rabkin, a George Mason University law professor and expert in the law of armed conflict.
“We cannot simultaneously pursue a policy of finding and destroying the chemical weapons and battle the Assad regime at the same moment because we need his help to locate them,” he added.
Rounding up chemical weapons in a country whose regime is hostile to western powers is a painstakingly difficult task, as U.N. weapons inspectors discovered over the course of a decade in Iraq.
For years, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's government kept inspectors guessing about its weapons supplies as he shifted around his stockpiles, possibly even out of his country into Syria and other neighboring states.
It was only after the 2003 invasion that the U.S. discovered that Hussein no longer held ready chemical weapons at his immediate disposal.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said that intelligence agencies know where Syria's chemical weapons are located, but U.N. inspectors would still need to rely on the regime's top officials to disclose the location of development and production facilities. And the danger remains that Assad could manage to hide a portion of his arsenal in a clandestine spot for future use.
International inspectors would also need armed protection while they collected the weapons and supplies in the middle of a violent armed rebellion and threats from extremist groups. Syria’s brutal civil war has dragged on for over two years, with a recent UN report estimating over 100,000 dead.
As the civil war continues, both sides may want to wrest control of the weapons and sabotage inspections. Any international team would also need to withstand possible attacks from either Syrian military forces or opposition groups, experts say.
Obama has said there will be no U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, leaving questions about exactly how the weapons would be secured and inspectors protected.
There is also debate about whether any located chemical weapons should be moved from Syria or secured wherever they are found.
“It doesn't make sense to leave these weapons in [Syria's] physical possession. So what does that mean? Does that mean the U.N. is going to have to guard and keep them under lock and key 24-7, or does it mean we will need to create a new site out of a danger zone?” asked Tim Trevan, who worked with the U.N. teams that tried to disarm Iraq of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Standard procedure is to destroy the weapons at their location to limit any release of toxins. But amid the chaos of Syria's civil war, Trevan said he believes it would be safest — depending on the condition of the arsenal — to try to transport the weapons out of more populated areas to a remote desert location, either in Syria or a nearby country.
Chemical weapons can be incinerated – but only at very high temperatures in a controlled environment. They also can be rendered inert by combining them with a certain percentage of salt water or other compounds.
In Syria's case, the destruction process would also take a long time, mainly because of the vast size of Assad's stockpiles.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said Syria's military had about 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, VX and sarin. The arsenal includes small rockets, artillery shells and other munitions pre-loaded with sarin.
Non-proliferation experts point to Libya's years-long attempt to give up its toxic materials and munitions and predict a similar effort in Syria would be a slow haul.
In 2004, U.S. and British officials made a deal with then-Libyan ruler Moammar Qaddafi to secretly dismantle his nuclear weapons program and fly some of the materials to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Libya had a much more difficult time dismantling its supplies of mustard gas. It took nearly 10 years to destroy most of its arsenal, and as of May of this year, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body based in The Hague, said roughly 15 percent of Tripoli’s stockpile remained.
In his address Tuesday night, Obama acknowledged that while he preferred “peaceful solutions” and a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian standoff, the path ahead is uncertain.
“It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Obama said.