As Russia promptly seized on Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparently off-hand remark that, if the Syrians surrender all of their chemical weapons, the country might avert a US military strike, the next question becomes how to verify that this happens.
Rounding up a nation's entire stockpile of chemical weapons – in the middle of a civil war – is no small task.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers Tuesday that he is “hopeful” that the plan to have Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “swiftly turn its chemical weapons arsenal over to international control so that it can be destroyed forever in a verifiable manner” could be “a real solution to the crisis.”
That said, “We must be clear-eyed and ensure it is not a stalling tactic by Syria and its Russian patrons,” he added, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
In other words, trust but verify – with a strong emphasis on the verify.
The Syrians, backed by the Russians, insist they will help with this by providing the actual location of their caches.
“We’re ready to inform about the location of chemical weapons, halt the production of chemical weapons, and also show these objects to representatives of Russia, other states, and the United Nations,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Tuesday.
For the Syrians to admit that they do have chemical weapons – a fact that they had denied in the past – is a big step, analysts point out.
But how can the United States be sure the regime will see to it that they are all destroyed?
“It’s impossible to verify that you’ve gotten everything, and to do so in the context of a civil war seems even harder,” says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“It’s worth exploring this option – but not forever and not naively," adds Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
For now, the US and Russia will work, in large part, through the United Nations – a move that President Obama is expected to outline in his speech Tuesday evening – to rid the Assad regime of the chemicals that US officials say he has used against his people.
This will, in turn, postpone the “unbelievably small” strike, in the words of Secretary Kerry, that the president had planned to carry out against Mr. Assad’s chemical stockpiles and the personnel responsible for maintaining them.
Yet another uncertainty – as it was with Iraq in 2003, analysts point out – is whether US officials will give UN inspectors a chance to do their job, a step that is likely to take some considerable time.
“We’re in for a drawn-out process,” says Mr. Fontaine.
“The administration is going to be in the bind of having to continue to use the threat of military force as leverage, while at the same time pursuing what will be a complicated process of securing chemical weapons, verifying that they are secure, and working all of that through international channels – all while there’s a raging civil war going on,” he adds.
One other stumbling block is Russia’s apparent insistence that the US foreswear the use of force, if Syria gives up its chemical weapons.
This is a non-starter for the Obama administration. “It was the president’s determination to hold Assad accountable – and the fact that he put military action on the table – that enabled this new diplomatic track to gain momentum,” Mr. Hagel told lawmakers.
For this reason, he still urged them to support the resolution authorizing the use of force. “The support of Congress for holding Assad accountable will give even more energy and urgency to these efforts,” he said.
In the meantime, while the diplomatic wrangling is likely to continue for some time, one bright spot already seems clear, says Dr. Kuchins of CSIS: “It does raise the bar a lot higher for Assad’s people to use chemical weapons again now.”