The Syrian Chemical Weapons Deal Is Nothing More Than A Face-Saving Stalling Tactic

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John Kerry Sergey Lavrov

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Secretary of State John Kerry with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

The U.S. and Russia have reached a deal to hand over Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles to the international community for their removal and destruction.

This move allows the U.S. to save face, and it has at least temporarily postponed a U.S. military attack on Syria. But the Syria problem is obviously far from solved.

In all likelihood, the complete removal and destruction of chemical weapons is a pipe dream.

Great news out of Geneva. Win-win: chemical weapons gone, no US military intervention.

— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) September 14, 2013

In the agreement framework provided by the State Department, Syria has a deadline of a week to submit all the information about its chemical weapons ammunition and sites — the ones they've been shuffling all over the country to hide in just the past few days  — and then allow U.N. inspectors to come in.

The agreement then lays out a deadline of "the first half of 2014" for the complete elimination of chemical weapons.

While it sounds great — we've avoided a military strike and worked on a diplomatic solution — there are some major problems with it:

The U.S. is relying on Assad to be truthful in giving up all his chemical weapons sites.

Assad has been at war with his own people for more than two years, and the U.S. and a number of allies have tried to delegitimize his government. To many, Syria has become a failed state. The view of now working with this same regime led Colum Lynch to write an article at Foreign Policy titled "Did the World Just Legitimize the Assad Regime It Spent Years Discrediting?"

"We have been delegitimizing the Syrian regime and suddenly by virtue of this initiative the Assad regime is now a partner of the international community," one senior Arab diplomat told FP. "Of course it's a good thing that these weapons and stockpiles be kept under safe control, but are we not inadvertently undoing what we have been trying to do for two years?"

In Assad, the U.S. has not only a person who would kill huge numbers of his own people, but would continue to lie about even using or having chemical weapons. And yet now, the Syrian president will just have to be trusted to give up all his stockpiles.

In essence, the international community is allowing a dictator to remain in power because he says he wants to give up his weapons of a mass destruction. A source speaking to Lynch brings up ex-Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and points out that didn't turn out very well the last time it was tried.

Chemical weapons disposal is difficult and takes a long time.

Incineration and neutralization are the two  main ways to get rid of chemical weapons, according to Popular Science. Incineration involves extreme heat to turn the toxins into nothing but ash, water and carbon dioxide, while neutralization breaks it down with water and a caustic compound. Both methods still produce waste that needs to be stored or processed further.

But could this happen by "the first half of 2014" as the U.S. and Russia have agreed? Just look to the United States for how long the process really takes.

From PopSci:

Years, more likely decades, depending on the size of the program. In 1986, Congress passed a law mandating destruction of chemical weapons in the United States, and while a tremendous amount of the stockpile has been destroyed, the work will continue well into the next decade, with the last site set to start disposal in 2020.

We also have an example of a nation destroying its entire chemical weapons stockpile in Albania. In 2007, at a cost of $48 million, the nation was chemical weapons free. That process took three years.

There's also the big problem of that major civil war that will be happening right around the people disposing of the toxins. "You can't do it slowly, you can't do it safely," Al Mauroni,  director of the U.S. Air Force counterproliferation center,  told PopSci. " There's going to be an obvious security risk the whole time you're trying to dispose of these things."

The "framework" of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia may just turn into a long international stalling match.

The agreement in Geneva on Saturday comes just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times. While many focused on him calling out "American exceptionalism," the passage of Syria's chemical weapons usage is particularly telling:

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

In this, Putin has accused the rebels of gassing themselves — a position completely unfounded by video, physical, and intelligence intercepts of Syrian communications — and as veteran war reporter Sebastian Junger writes, "[it] reminds me of the Serb authorities who said the people of Sarajevo were mortaring themselves; it was just as unconvincing then as it is now."

The passage is also hypocritical. If Putin believes it was the rebels that used chemical weapons, there should be no reason in his mind that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to give up his.

The theoretical diplomatic process was laid out pretty simply this morning on Twitter by Mike Doran, a senior fellow for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. In a series of tweets, Doran compares the deal to mortgaging the family business to mobster John Gotti.

Here's what Doran tweeted (condensed from four tweets):

"The Putin-Obama CW deal is a veritable cornucopia of meaningless process that appears very weighty. The admin will generate  countless meetings which will be held with great solemnity. Skeptics will be told that officials are doing their level best  to make the world a little better. The usual suspects will tell us that our statesmen tripped a bit but landed in a good place.  They manage to diminish Assad and make Putin 'a stakeholder' in a valuable process. Nonsense!"

Then, he makes the mob analogy in explaining what actually happened (condensed over six tweets):

" Dad just mortgaged the family business to John Gotti, who was all smiles during the deal. Mr. Gotti took the plushest office.  Gotti will start putting the screws to Dad soon, but nobody will admit it, b/c that would only humiliate Dad further.  An army of pundits will explain how Gotti is more 'complex' than simpletons believe. And Dad is 'sophisticated.'

Dad is as virtuous as a dove but as savvy as a serpent, so he can turn Gotti's venality into a virtue.  And to help make the point there will be endless process. Meetings, pronouncements, initiatives, consultations.  Dad will put on a good show in public. You'll never see his head pressed on a work bench and his arm twisted up behind his back."



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