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How Russia convinced Syria to hand over its chemical weapons

Fellow from the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies explains

(photo by James Gordon via Flickr)

A United Nations commission declared today that several massacres have occurred over the past 18 months at the bidding of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, its supporters and rebels. 

The report noted worsening violence against civilians, echoing concerns voiced by the United States as it considers a mlitary response to an alleged chemical attack killing hundreds of Syrian civilians in late August.

Meanwhile, Syria agreed yesterday to give up its chemical weapons as part of a deal brokered by Russia.

Tensions in the country and around the world continue to rise as foreign relations between major global players continue to complicate the matter.

Sergei Plekhanov is a fellow at University of Toronto's Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Associate Professor of Political Science at York and a Secretary of the Canadian Pugwash Group, an NGO advocating nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

He explained the deal to U of T News.

Why was Russia able to broker this deal?

Russia is one of the few countries which have friendly relations with Syria. At the same time, Russia and the U.S. continue to work together on those issues where their interests coincide. So, Russia can serve a mediator between Syria and the U.S., and it has done so a number of times, but until now, without much success.

This time, Obama’s interest in exploring a diplomatic option grew when his plan to bomb Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons failed to win enough support both internationally and in the U.S. Last week, Obama and Putin had an informal exchange on Syria in St. Petersburg. It seems that the idea of internationalizing Syrian chemical weapons arose in some form or other during that meeting. Then it was up to Putin to persuade Assad to give up his chemical weapons, which by now have become a huge liability for Syria.

Assad realizes that what Obama is really after is regime change, and that the Ghouta chemical attack became a serious pretext for U.S. intervention. Removing the pretext by giving up chemical weapons is a smart move for Assad which buys him some time before some kind of political transition would begin in Syria. So, Russian mediation worked because both sides were interested in finding an exit from an impending conflict which could have disastrous consequences for everyone. 

What’s the global significance of Russia’s move to receive Syria’s chemical weapons?

Russia won’t “receive” chemical weapons, and it does not even have a right to do so as a party to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention. The weapons will be collected and secured by the United Nations (UN).

Global significance? First of all, a useful lesson about the utility of diplomacy as opposed to use of force. Second, Russia has shown that it can be an effective broker, which is good for all. Third, Syria’s chemical disarmament will be of major importance for peace and security in the Middle East. Fourth, despite the worsening of U.S. - Russian relations in the past couple of years, we are not in a new cold war.

What will you be watching for as this hand-over and its aftermath continues to unfold?

Transfer of Syria’s chemical arsenal to the UN in the middle of civil war is a daunting challenge. It will be an unprecedented operation of major proportions, requiring rock-solid commitments on behalf of all concerned, some of the best specialized skills the world can muster – and a lot of luck. So many things can go wrong. For instance, some rebel groups must be feeling hugely disappointed now and may resort to foul play to try and derail the process. They, too, possess chemical weapons which they’ll have to give up.

One can imagine any number of bad scenarios. But if one imagines trying to accomplish such a mission in the wake of a U.S.-Syria war, the task of disarming Syria now, through cooperation with its current government, almost begins to look easy. By the way, I don’t exclude a possibility that the chemical disarmament process itself, provided it is carried out in earnest, may pave the way to an end of the Syrian civil war.

September 11, 2013

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