Challenge Enormous, but We Can Do it Together
A framework document agreed by the US and Russia on September 14 stipulates that Syria must provide a full inventory of its chemical weapons in one week. The production equipment is to be destroyed by November and all weapons must be removed from Syria or destroyed by mid-2014. If Syria fails to comply, the deal could be enforced by a UN resolution with the use of force as a last resort.
China, the UK, France the UN and NATO have all expressed satisfaction at the agreement. The both sides confirmed that a UN resolution could be sought under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which allows for the use of force, if Syria fails to comply. But US officials say the President reserves the right to act without the agreement of the UN.
However Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said force remained a last-ditch option. According to him, “Naturally, no use of force is mentioned in these agreed approaches. Nor are any automatic sanctions mentioned. Any violations must be convincingly and unambiguously proven in the UN Security Council.”
The Russia-US Agreement on Syria is a daunting challenge. Never in the history of disarmament anything like this has been achieved within the framework assigned, especially under the conditions of raging war. Actually, to large degree, we face the prospect of a leap into the unknown.
Mission to accomplish
The mission to accomplish is a massive undertaking. The Syria’s cache of chemical weapons is believed to be the third biggest in the world, something in the order of 1,000 tons of agent in total: a mix of sulphur mustard, VX and sarin and there are at least 20 sites of interest. It is behind only that held by the United States and Russia destroying their stockpiles in compliance with the international convention they are parties to. There is an array of problems to be faced in unfriendly environment. To hammer the plan into workable shape is a real tall order.
But it must be done before launching the process that is to start from full accounting of production facilities to enable inspectors to go in and carry out checks. The munitions must be made ready, handled with great care and transported with absolute security to be collected in secure areas to be destroyed ultimately. It would be much safer to take the stockpiles out of Syria and eliminate them. But who will volunteer to do the job? Transporting chemical weapons from Syria by train or by tanker is risky under the war conditions. Any transportation of the agents outside the country would also pose significant security and environmental risks.
Escapes of sarin may follow to bring about horrible fallout. Taking the weapons out into the desert to burn them up will create a huge toxic plume making areas around uninhabitable. So special facilities and equipment are indispensable to do it, but constructing the infrastructure may take a few years. Once operational, the destruction process can also take a considerable amount of time – likely many months to dismantle a relatively small arsenal, depending on the agents involved. Destroying weaponized agents, particularly sarin, is hard. The weapons will have to be carefully disassembled and the nerve gas incinerated in specially constructed burners built on site. The process must be monitored all the time.
In Iraq it took years for the U.N. Special Commission to investigate the nature of Saddam Hussein’s chemical program during the 1990s. After all, nine years after Libya began the destruction of its stockpiles; only 50% of its Mustard Gas and 40% of its chemical precursors were destroyed. Some of Syria’s production facilities are probably coupled with other munitions or missiles.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has a corps of experts who have helped eliminate weapons in 15 nations and conducted inspections in 86 states. But none were conducted in the midst of a civil war.
One of prerequisites is a ceasefire amid civil war and the capability to counter the threat of terrorist attacks. In its turn it makes the cooperation of all sides indispensable. The Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group and a backer of US military strikes, rejected the Russian proposal and, saying it “will lead to more death and destruction of the Syrian people.” “There is nothing in this agreement that concerns us,” said Gen Salim Idriss, the leader of the organization, describing it as a Russian initiative designed to gain time for the Syrian government and promised to continue fighting. The rebels regarded the deal as a blow to their struggle to oust Assad.
At that Mr. Idris said the formations under his command would cooperate to facilitate the work of any international inspectors on the ground. But another military council official, Qassim Saadeddine, said the opposite, “Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria.” There are other multiple militant groups, many of them radical ones, who act on their own.
Anyway protecting inspectors and providing security for the whole operation would require a sizeable one peacekeeping force. The U.S. estimated in April that 70,000 troops would be needed to secure Syria’s caches.
The nations involved face formidable practical challenges, like defining the structure and procedures for command and control system to head the operation or going through a tedious and time consuming process of working out the rules of engagement. There must be sectors of responsibility assigned – normally a serious political issue.
Russia-US bilateral military cooperation – effective and in force
This August the United States accepted the Russia’s invitation to send US military experts to monitor the upcoming large-scale military exercise Zapad-2013. The invitation was made at the talks between the Russian and US foreign policy and defence chiefs in Washington. The joint Russian-Belarusian exercise due to be held from September23 to September27. It will involve over 13,000 personnel, about 250 combat vehicles and some 60 aircraft and helicopters.
The SCO conducted drills will take place in Belarus and in Russia’s Western Military District, as well as in the Barents and Baltic seas. Extending the invitation Sergey Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister, noted general progress in US-Russian military cooperation despite the existence of some sticking points. He said Russia may even expand the scope of foreign officials’ invitations to such events in the future.
The Russia’s and US defence chiefs agreed to step up contacts at the level of deputies to the defence chiefs, hold videoconferences as a form of negotiations on a regular basis, and try to make the 2014 plan of cooperation between the Russian Defense Ministry and the US Defense Department more substantial.
“If even something has changed, then it has changed quite for the better. We don’t see any threats. I don’t feel any concerns regarding our further dialogues and don’t think that we see any cooling down when we talk exclusively about our military cooperation. Perhaps it’s actually vice versa,” Mr. Shoigu noted. (1)
The parties signed the Military Cooperation Working Group (MCWG) 2013 Work Plan in April that contains 78 programming events within its framework. In addition, the MCWG anticipates nearly 30 additional events outside the agreed upon Work Plan for this year. Supporting the goals of the Military Cooperation Working Group, a delegation from Russia’s Military Academy of the General Staff (MAGS) visited the U.S. National Defence University (NDU) late March, the first such visit in nearly six years. Officials from the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) visited Russia’s Asia-Pacific Region/Eastern Military District (EAMD) on April 19 – 20. PACOM meetings with EAMD leadership is a positive step toward future Combatant Command-Military District regional engagement on issues of mutual interest.
The meeting was made possible by the Military Cooperation Working Group’s engagement with regional military groups. The spirit of cooperation under the Military Cooperation Working Group, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen arrived in Vladivostok May 7 to foster U.S. ties with the Russian navy. The visit coincided with Victory Day, the Russian celebration of the end of World War II in Europe. American sailors attended Victory Day events and laid a wreath at the Pacific Fleet Battle Fame Memorial. These are just a few shots to give vision of the whole picture of vast and productive cooperation that is thriving no matter all the ups and downs in the state-to-state relationship.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn N. Farkas said this September that, “Our level of interaction with Russia has increased substantially with the establishment of the Defence Relations Working Group in September 2010,” she said. “The working group is intended to create mechanisms for discussion and exchange at the policy level between defence professionals on a range of issues, including defence reform and modernization, missile defence cooperation, defence technology cooperation, and global and regional security issues of mutual interest.”
She added, “Even in areas of disagreement there must be conversations, Farkas said. Both Russia and the United States agree that the civil war in Syria should end, she noted, but Russia supports the regime of Bashar Assad. “Both of our countries have been adamant that we remain committed to working with each other to bring the parties together to negotiate a political settlement.” (2)
As it turns out, the U.S. European command interacts almost daily with Russian armed forces – in training, exercising, building personal relationships, and performing real-world national security missions side-by-side – around 50-70 events a year on average and going up – a very robust, cooperative effort between our militaries. They go year to year, they get more complicated. Other regional commands have their own events and relationships, including Pacific Command, North American Aerospace Defense Command, and Northern Command.
The counter-piracy mission off of Africa directly traces back to years of performing six or seven exercises a year and more events of other kinds. Not all joint events are the same ranging from a group of officers in a table-top war game to a full-scale naval drill involving 5,000 sailors and officers from several countries, in which hundreds of officers get face-to-face with their counterparts. The mission is enhancing interoperability and the ability to rapidly deploy together to do a mission – just exactly what is required in Syria now.
Beyond those specific events, US war supplies go into Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network and joint counterterrorism efforts are on the way off the Horn of Africa. The joint activities are exercised on a constant drumbeat. There is a strong personal relationship between American and Russia top leadership as well as ranks and file.
Despite the state-to-state relationship going through hard times because of many moot issues, like Iran, Syria, nuclear weapons, missile defence and human rights, there has seen no intent from either side to slow down military cooperation. Talking about Syria, Russia and the USA have a unique and rich experience of implementing the Nunn-Lugar program which dealt with the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. This experience is exactly what is needed to address the Syrian problem. (3)
The plan may only be realized if the US and Russia put aside their differences and engage in a joint effort. Now there is no choice other than to get our act together and do what, in general terms, approved by the international community. Time and again the turns of history show the Russia-US cooperation in tackling burning global issues is a must.
At a summit in Northern Ireland, Russian and American leaders emphasized the increasing importance of cooperation in combating international terrorism, and adopted a joint statement on this score. It is very acute for responding to the events in Syria now… Despite the crisis of the reset and the general deterioration of bilateral relations in the past two years, the Counterterrorism Working Group of the Bilateral Presidential Commission continues to operate, as do the majority of other working groups.
Moreover, at the recent G8 summit, Putin and Obama agreed to give it an additional political impetus. There have been times much worse than current disagreements between Russia and the US. Back in history the both countries managed to cope with great challenges, they put curbs on the running away arms race starting from the 1960s and found a compromise while balancing on the verge of WWIII during the Cuban crisis. They found ways to avert unintentional accidents that could spark wars, like the incidents at sea agreement in 1972 that averted the threat of war in the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
The list can go on. We can do it again. We can do it when the both sides realize we have a common challenge to meet and the interest is mutual. We can do it if the US realizes the talks should be held on the basis of equality and respect for the counterpart, which is not always the case as life has shown. The Syrian crisis is a global threat and global responsibility. Some aspects of the situation are extraordinary and need extraordinary ways to react. The time to join together and do it is now, if there is a will there is always a way. The implementation of Russia’s proposal is the best way to handle the problem, there is nothing impossible when the efforts are united in joint endeavour.
Author: Andrei Akulov
Russia-US Agreement on Syrian Chemical Weapons