FPI Fact Sheet on the U.S.-Russian Plan for Assad’s Chemical Weapons

September 17, 2013

I.   Key Background on the U.S.-Russian Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons

On September 14th, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced an ambitious plan for removing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons by mid-2014.  

  • The plan requires the Assad regime “to submit, within one week a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”  
  • The plan also requires the “[c]ompletion of initial OPCW on-site inspections by November,” the “[d]estruction of production and mixing/filling equipment by November,” and the “[c]omplete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.”
  • The United States and other world powers are expected to introduce soon a resolution at the U.N. Security Council that lays out details on the plan’s implementation, verification, and enforcement mechanisms.
  • On September 16th, Secretary Kerry joined French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague to say:  “I can speak for all of us here, and I think for our presidents and prime minister, we will not tolerate avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime to the core principles of what has been achieved here.  If Assad fails to comply with the terms of this framework, make no mistake, we are all agreed—and that includes Russia—that there will be consequences.”

However, the United States and Russia still differ on how to enforce the plan if the Assad regime fails to comply.

  • As Bloomberg reported on September 15th: “Kerry and Lavrov revealed that they differ over authorizing the use of force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if Assad fails to comply with the agreement.  Russia blocked a proposal by the U.S., supported by France and the U.K., that the Security Council require compliance under Chapter 7 from the start, providing a trigger for military strikes.  Instead, the accord calls for violations to be referred back to the council, which only then would consider imposing measures under Chapter 7.”

Even if Assad agrees to the plan, international inspectors will face a number of legal and practical challenges in implementing and verifying the plan.

  • Syria will have to quickly provide international inspectors with detailed declarations of its chemical weapons and related materials and equipment.  As The New York Times reported on September 11th:  “even that step would require negotiation to determine exactly what should be declared and whether certain systems would be covered, because many delivery systems for chemical weapons—including artillery, mortars and multiple-rocket launchers—can also fire conventional weapons.”
  • International inspectors will have to operate within a violent proxy warzone in Syria.  On September 15th, the Washington Post reported: “At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria, the latest casualties in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and can be expected to claim many more.”
  • Recent news reports suggest an elite military unit of the Assad regime has been moving chemical weapons to new locations throughout the country.  The Wall Street Journal reported on September 12th:  “Unit 450—a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that manages the regime’s overall chemicals weapons program—has been moving the stocks around for months, officials and lawmakers briefed on the intelligence said.”

Even outside of warzones, past efforts to eliminate national stockpiles of chemical weapons have proven to be challenging.  Although Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi had renounced chemical weapons in December 2003 and subsequently allowed international inspectors to eliminate his stockpiles, inspectors later found that he had cheated on his agreement. 

  • As the Washington Post reported on September 14, 2013:  “Gaddafi’s public break with weapons of mass destruction was not all that it seemed.  Only after his death in 2011 did investigators learn that he had retained a large stash of chemical weapons.  In a hillside bunker deep in Libya’s southeastern desert, Gaddafi had tucked away hundreds of battle-ready warheads loaded with deadly sulfur mustard.”

Although President Obama demanded that Assad “step aside” in August 2011, the U.S.-Russian plan focuses not on getting rid of Assad, but only his chemical weapons.  As McClatchy’s Washington Bureau reported on September 14, 2013: “The U.S.-Russian deal to seize Syria’s chemical weapons is likely to keep Bashar Assad in office for at least many months to come in a major setback for Syrian opposition figures who now face the prospect of negotiating with what they fear will be an emboldened regime with its superior military intact.”

II.  Assad’s Record of Broken Promises in Syria

Over the last two-and-a-half years, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly broken promises to help end the conflict in Syria.  As The New York Times reported on September 15th:  “Rebels and analysts critical of Mr. Assad’s government say he has a well-established pattern of agreeing to diplomatic initiatives to buy time, only to go on escalating the fighting.”

In March 2011, Assad promised to implement reforms and lift the country’s decades-old emergency law.  As the Los Angeles Times reported on March 29, 2011: “It remains unclear whether Assad’s reforms would be genuine, or enough to quiet protests.  Repealing the much-reviled emergency law, which has been in place since 1963, would be a token gesture unless accompanied by other changes, such as stripping police of their immunity.”

  • However, despite lifting the emergency law in April 2011, Assad’s security forces escalated their crackdown on protestors.  As CNN reported on April 21, 2011:  “Despite the changes, there’ve been continuing clashes and tensions between security forces and protesters, who have taken to the streets since mid-March with a variety of grievances.  Scores have died in bloody confrontations.”

In June 2011, Assad promised to implement political reforms and changes to Syria’s constitution.  As the Los Angeles Times reported on June 20, 2011:  “In his first public address in over two months, Syrian President Bashar Assad, facing international and domestic pressure for rapid change, promised to open the country's political system and allow for a change of the constitution, but he unveiled no concrete new reforms and continued to blame unspecified foreign conspiracies for the violence perpetrated by his security forces.”

  • However, when Assad finally called for a national referendum in February 2012, regime forces continued attacks against the opposition. As Reuters reported on February 27, 2012: “Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.”

In November 2011, Assad agreed to an Arab League peace proposal that would have removed regime forces from the streets.  As the Los Angeles Times reported on November 2, 2011:  “Under intense pressure from Arab states, Syria has signed a pact to pull its armed forces from the streets, release political prisoners and engage with opposition groups after seven months of unrest that has ravaged the strategically situated nation and unsettled the entire region.”

  • However, after Assad failed to implement the agreement, the Arab League called on the Syrian dictator to step down and accept a power transition plan.  As the Washington Post reported on January 22, 2012:  “The announcement of the [transition] plan at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo signaled growing Arab frustration with Assad’s failure to implement the terms of a peace plan to which he agreed in November, and it offered the clearest indication yet that Arab states want him to step down.”

In late March 2012, Assad agreed to implement a ceasefire as part of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan.  As The New York Times reported on March 27, 2012:  “Seeking to project an image of responsibility and reason, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria formally accepted a United Nations envoy’s cease-fire proposal on Tuesday and conducted a televised walking tour through the shell-shocked city of Homs, a center of the year-old uprising against him.”

  • However, the Assad regime continued to attack the opposition soon thereafter.  As the Washington Post reported on May 5, 2012: “Even as U.N. officials tout a declining death toll and increased numbers of international monitors in the country, reports from inside Syria point to a determined, but lower-profile, effort by President Bashar al-Assad to crush remaining pockets of opposition in defiance of international agreements, the officials said.”
  • Annan resigned his position as U.N.-Arab League envoy in August 2012.  As The New York Times reported on August 2, 2012:  “Frustrated by the seemingly intractable Syrian conflict, Kofi Annan announced his resignation on Thursday as the special peace envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, throwing new doubts on whether a diplomatic solution is possible.  He also said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria ‘must leave office.’”

In October 2012, Assad agreed to a four-day ceasefire during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha under U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s new peace plan.

  • The ceasefire fell apart four days later when the regime continued its indiscriminate attacks on rebel combatants and civilian non-combatants.  As The New York Times reported on October 30, 2012: “The declared four-day holiday truce between the warring factions in Syria ended on Monday much as it had begun — with airstrikes, artillery barrages and other firefights around the country that made a mockery of the cease-fire.”

In May 2013, Assad agreed “in principle” to participate in a U.S.-Russia sponsored peace conference in Geneva, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman. 

  • However, the Geneva peace conference has experienced multiple delays due to disagreements over the negotiation’s objective.  The New York Times reported on June 26th that both Washington and Moscow “agreed the peace conference should lead to the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers over all institutions of state, but the United States interprets that to mean a full transfer of powers from Mr. Assad.  Russia, however, has insisted that only Syrians can decide his role.”
  • Moderate leaders in Syria’s armed opposition doubt Assad’s sincerity in participating in an international peace conference.  The Daily Mail reported on September 13th that Free Syrian Army officials “claim President Assad is simply using the Russians to ‘buy time’ so he can continue killing with the conventional arsenal he still has at his disposal despite a promise to relinquish his chemical weapons.”  And as the Associated Press reported on September 14th:  “The commander of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, Gen. Salim Idris, said in Turkey that the Russian initiative [for eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons and an eventual peace conference] would ‘buy time’ [for the Assad regime] and that rebels will continue ‘fighting the regime and work for bringing it down.’”

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