The Syrian Sisyphus

The framework for elimination of Syrian chemical weapons agreed to last week by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov could, and could is the operative word, potentially become the most stunning geostrategic event in global security since Richard Nixon’s outreach to China and the demise of the Soviet Union.

But make no mistake: Even if the agreement holds, hard, if not seemingly impossible work, lies ahead to realize this extraordinary opportunity. However, the United States, Russia and other partners would be derelict not to make every effort and then some to eliminate in a verifiable and effective way Syrian chemical weapons.

Consider some of the Sisyphean labors that lie ahead:

First, securing and then disposing these weapons is complicated and dangerous exacerbated by the raging Syrian civil war. Elements within the Assad regime will oppose losing this counterweight to Israel’s nuclear weapons. Al-Qaida, al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah and other extremist groups will attempt to seize or attack these weapons and facilities. And the Free Syrian Army, angry that the United States hasn’t struck Syria’s military to weaken it, isn’t necessarily going to cooperate as fully as it might.

All this means that “boots on the ground” will be needed if the Syrian army cannot provide security because it is consumed with fighting a civil war.

Who then will provide security and accept the risk of taking casualties from both friendly and unfriendly fire? And what outsiders might be acceptable to the Syrian regime for this purpose?

Further, the logistics of disposal are incredibly difficult. Russia or some other state may elect to receive the materials for disposal. Destruction, however, will require years as well as significant amounts of money.

And in getting these weapons to their final destination, transportation from their storage sites in Syria to embarkation points whether by road or air is subject to attack and human error.

Second, the Obama administration must reconcile contradictions in its convoluted policies toward Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go. If media reports are correct, the CIA is arming the “moderate” opposition.

But what is the higher priority: eliminating chemical weapons or forcing Assad to leave office? Both cannot be achieved concurrently because without Assad’s cooperation, there is no chance that chemical weapons can be secured peacefully.

And no matter which priority the U.S. president chooses, he will be savaged by former supporters who called for military strikes and the end of the regime and by opponents who distrust the Russians and also argue for Assad’s departure.

Third, many bureaucracies will be engaged including the national security councils of the United States and Russia, the United Nations, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and among others the Syrian government. Hence, delays and administrative obstacles could be huge. Cutting through them as Alexander slashed the Gordian Knot or circumventing these potential impediments will be essential to ensure that disposal proceeds at a timely pace.

Fourth, who will be in charge of the operations and logistics not the least of which is providing security for the inspectors and for those who will initially take charge of the storage and production sites during this process? Similarly, who will pay for this disposal as the costs could run in the tens and possibly hundreds of billions of dollars?

And using the U.S. example in which destruction of its stockpile of chemical weapons, admittedly dozens of times larger than Syria’s, hasn’t been completed, what realistic schedule can be set to assure final disposition of these materials?

Devils and details always coexist and usually unhappily. Given the pressures that demand quick resolution of these complex and knotty issues to contain or diffuse powerful political forces working against this process, at least in initial planning, a central group must be empowered now to begin that work. And bringing in other participants with skills that can expedite this effort is also essential.

NATO may or may not have a role to play. Ditto for the European Union. But we know, for example, that Romania has unique access in Syria for a number of reasons, including a sizable emigre population living there, and Germany’s private sector has extensive experience in disposal of chemical weapons of the former Soviet Union. And regional states including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and possibly Iran must be consulted as well as China.

The ends of eliminating Syrian chemical weapons demand maximum effort to achieve success. While the U.S. use of force remains in play, should this process fail and a strike follows, as Russian President Vladimir Putin rightly predicts, then the Syrian situation will become a disaster if not a catastrophe. So, press on; press on!

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.