Syrian foot-dragging in destroying its arsenal of chemical weapons has again exposed the limitations of UN collective security when the Security Council’s permanent members fail to speak with one voice. UNSC Resolution 2118, passed on September 27, 2013, requires the government of Bashar al-Assad to destroy all chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by November 1, 2013, and eliminate all materials by mid-2014. This was always an ambitious deadline given the challenges of loading and securely transporting large quantities of weapons in the midst of a civil war. It is now apparent that the Syrian government will miss its deadline by a wide margin. As of January 30, Syrian forces had transported less than 5 percent of the required material.
According to U.S. intelligence experts, however, this delay is a function less of logistical difficulties than of foot-dragging by Damascus. Indeed, Syrian forces have shown an impressive ability to move chemical weapons around the country, and to keep them out of rebel hands. What they have not done is get many of these weapons to the Mediterranean port of Latakia, after which they would be transported to a U.S. ship via Italy for destruction in international waters.
Syrian dawdling is understandable, because Assad understands that his chemical weapons arsenal has given him diplomatic leverage—which will evaporate when he is disarmed. Indeed, as director of national intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress Tuesday, the chemical weapons (CW) deal has actually strengthened Assad’s hold on power.
This was not inevitable. In August, after Syrian forces launched a bold chemical weapons attack in the contested suburbs of Damascus, the United States seemed poised to launch a punitive strike. But when support from allies, notably the United Kingdom, failed to materialize, the Obama administration retreated in an apparent diplomatic fiasco. Russia then pulled U.S. chestnuts out of the fire, by reorienting multilateral diplomacy toward Syria’s CW disarmament. Implicit in this initiative was an attractive deal for Damascus—it could continue to pursue violence against rebels (and civilians caught in the crossfire), provided it limited itself to the use of conventional weapons that had already killed one hundred times more Syrians than its chemical arsenal.
By prioritizing the elimination of chemical weapons over ending ongoing atrocities committed with “normal” weapons, the Obama administration and its Security Council partners in effect transformed Bashar al-Assad from a pariah to a partner. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), charged with liquidating Assad’s arsenal, has only sixty inspectors on the ground in Syria. They cannot do their job without heavy reliance on the Syrian government to supply security forces, scientists and engineers, laborers, and drivers to secure and destroy CW installations and transport CW materials safely to Latakia. Naturally, it is in Assad’s interest to ensure that this dependence lasts as long as possible. For, if and when Syria is finally disarmed of CW, U.S. and broader Western attention will assuredly refocus not only on arming Syrian insurgents but on Assad’s removal from power as a precondition for the formation of any transitional government.
As many commentators predicted, Syrian stalling has underlined a significant and potentially fatal weakness in UNSC Resolution 2118. During debates over the wording of the resolution, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that any resolution must include “automatic” authorization for coercive measures should Damascus fail to comply with its obligations. Moscow, however, adamantly opposed any such trigger. Accordingly, the final language of UNSC Resolution 2118 was watered down to declare that “in the event of non-compliance” by Syria, the Security Council must pass a second resolution “under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.”
Given Russian (and Chinese) obduracy, and their possession of a veto, it is hard to see how the Obama administration could have obtained any other result. But the diluted resolution now poses a dilemma for the United States and its Western allies, particularly the other permanent UNSC members: France and the United Kingdom. If Assad continues to stall on CW disarmament, or begins to play an even more obvious game of cat and mouse with OPCW inspectors, will the United States and its transatlantic partners seek to act outside the UNSC, including by launching punitive strikes on Assad? Such a “coalition of the willing” approach could resemble the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo—one that was technically “illegal” but nevertheless “legitimate” in the eyes of many international lawyers.
Russia, which fears any outcome that would marginalize the UN Security Council, is reportedly taking steps to avert this possibility, pressing Damascus to speed up the pace of its disarmament efforts. If Moscow succeeds, it could once again alleviate a U.S. predicament about whether—and how—to intervene in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war and humanitarian catastrophe drags on. This week the United Nations estimated that more than 10,000 children, many of them subjected to torture by the government, have been killed since the conflict began three years ago. Last month’s peace talks in Geneva, pushed by the Obama administration, produced little, in the judgment of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. A third round of talks is scheduled to begin on or around February 10, but expectations are even lower than they were for “Geneva II.” As of this writing, the Syrian government had not yet confirmed its attendance, and Clapper’s testimony offers a potential reason: With a stronger position today, Assad can anticipate no worse than a “sort of a perpetual stalemate where neither the regime nor the opposition can prevail.” At the recent Munich Security Conference, Secretary of State Kerry himself reportedly vented his exasperation with the failure of current U.S. policy. Unfortunately, it appears the only option is to hope that Russia will push Damascus not only to adhere to UNSC Resoluton 2118, but also to return to the negotiating table to stem the bloodshed and contain the insecurity spilling across Syria’s many borders and beyond.