The Obama administration is rightly concerned about the technical, diplomatic and security challenges of controlling Syria's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Even if the UN-led initiative can prevent Assad from using chemical weapons, it will not stop Syria's civil war or protect civilians from conventional armed conflict. Dismantling Assad's WMD should be linked to a broader strategy aimed at ending Syria's civil war.
Russia's diplomatic initiative to sequester Syria's WMD under UN control is fraught with difficulty. A muscular UN Security Council resolution must be adopted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. A Chapter 7 resolution allows the international community to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign Member State, employing "all necessary measures" to enforce commitments.
Russia has already rejected the French draft of a Chapter 7 resolution condemning Syria for using chemical weapons and backing diplomacy with a threat of force. It prefers a resolution under Chapter 6 that envisions the "peaceful settlement of disputes" with no provisions for enforcement. Russia and China maintain an "axis of sovereignty" that shields tyrants from accountability for violating international humanitarian law.
Establishing a UN mission to control Assad's WMD will take time. It will be weeks before the UN Security Council drafts, negotiates and adopts a resolution. More than one resolution may be required before finalizing a process for putting Syria's weapons under international control.
It will also take time to ramp up a mission to deal with Syria's WMD. Countries that want to support the mission will face domestic political considerations. Some may require authorization by their parliaments. Once they sign up, countries will have to identify and recruit scientists and other experts to participate. Syria is thought to have the third largest stockpile in the world. Up to 2,000 inspectors may be required for this highly specialized mission, but the worldwide pool of qualified specialists is limited. The mission will need to be paid for through voluntary contributions of Member States. It will be expensive and could take years.
When the mission is launched, it will face serious challenges in-the-field. Inspectors must have unfettered access to suspected storage sites. Moreover, they need security and protection. Inspectors cannot function in a combat zone. With Syria's civil war raging, they will be hard pressed to move around. Countries will not want to send their personnel into harm's way. Assad will assign "minders" ostensibly for their protection. These minders will actually be representatives from Syria's Mukhabarat, obstructing rather than enabling progress. Establishing a foreign protection force is unlikely given the risks. The international community must dictate a protocol for in-country activities and a deadline for Syria to fully comply. Assad has never even admitted to having WMD. It would be naïve to think he would suddenly own up and hand over his arsenal to the international community. Syria may try to create the appearance of cooperation, handing over some rusty old drums of yellowcake while taking steps to hide its lethal supply of VX, sarin and mustard gas. Intelligence agencies with eyes and ears on Syria believe that Assad is already dispersing supplies from eight known sites so that inspectors can't get their hands on them.
What will inspectors do when they find WMD? One option is to simply control them in warehouses where they are currently stored. Another is to cluster them at a central storage facility. Another would be to move the WMD out of the country. In this event, which country would be suitable? Each option requires infrastructure and capacity. Destroying WMD would require incineration facilities that operate under exacting standards to prevent contamination. Security is critical at every stage so stockpiles do not fall into the hands of rebels who may use it against Syrian armed forces or jihadis with ties to al-Qaeda.
Assad has given the international community absolutely no reason to trust him. His performance during recent interviews confirmed that either he believes his own propaganda, or is simply a pathological liar. Assad won't comply unless he believes that Syria will pay a steep price for failing its international obligations. At this juncture, however, does Assad really think that Obama is ready to use force? The U.S. is keeping its war ships on alert, but Obama has shown he has no appetite for striking Syria.
Russia is no more trustworthy than Syria. Its tactical strategy is to block unilateral military action by the United States by delegating the UN Security Council with ultimate authority to control Assad's weapons. Obama appears compliant, deferring a vote on Congressional authorization to use force that he was likely to lose anyway.
Sequestering Syria's WMD is extremely difficult, but worth trying. The UN Security Council can increase the likelihood of successfully disarming Syria if its resolution is correctly constructed, incorporating lessons from previous inspection regimes.
However, preventing Assad from using the world's deadliest weapons will not stop the carnage of Syria's civil war. There is no end in sight to Syria's slaughterhouse where more than 100,000 people have already been killed by conventional weapons. The UN Security Council resolution should explicitly link control of Assad's WMD to a broader peace process. Its resolution should demand a ceasefire, weapons embargo, and set a date for political talks at a Geneva Conference.
Syria's civil war is at a crossroads. Down one path lies war without end. A disarmament and peace process lies down the other. How the United States handles the diplomatic and security challenge will set the tone for what's left of Obama's second term, as well as America's leadership in world affairs.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He was formerly a Foreign Affairs Expert for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and author of Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-War Reconstruction Fiasco.