Arguments about Syria's chemical weapons have now shifted to the UN Security Council, with predictable results. Russia is resisting American and French attempts to issue a binding resolution – i.e. one that could be backed up with the use of force if Syria failed to comply.
"We need a full resolution from the Security Council to have the confidence that this has the force it ought to have,” US secretary of state John Kerry said in remarks quoted by the New York Times. "Right now the Russians are in a slightly different place on that."
The paper adds that Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, will meet in Geneva on Thursday to discuss this further.
While Russia's opposition to chemical weapons (in general) is well established, there is as yet no sign that its support for the Assad regime is waning. It appears to be trying to do just enough about Syria's chemical weapons to avert airstrikes while continuing to muddy the waters over who was responsible for the August 21 attacks.
Russia Today reports that it has now handed over unspecified "evidence" to the Security Council and quotes the head of the Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee as saying:
"We have the basis to think not only the Syrian government has them [chemical weapons] … but we suspect that those weapons have been used by the rebels several times."
It will be interesting to see whether these suspicions about the rebels are backed up by the extremely high levels of proof that Russia has set in connection with chemical weapons.
Russia seems to be angling for a mere "statement" from the Security Council rather than a full-scale resolution. Yesterday, the foreign ministry said (see 19.14 GMT):
"Russia, on its part, is submitting a draft statement for the UN Security Council's chairman, welcoming the … initiative and calling on the UN Secretary General, the general director of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and all the interested parties to make efforts to facilitate the implementation of this proposal [on chemical weapons]."
That gives a clue as to where things may be headed next. Technically speaking, the Security Council doesn't have to be involved at all. Syria could simply sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and the matter would then automatically fall
into the hands of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), triggering a lengthy disarmament process.
The trouble with the OPCW process is that it is designed for countries that have decided to renounced chemical weapons voluntarily, rather than under duress. It's all rather leisurely and gentle, since it assumes there's little prospect that a new member will be tempted to use its existing weapons in the meantime.
Under the OPCW procedures, for example, Syria's first step after joining the Convention would be to appoint a National Authority. The OPCW, very helpfully, would then provide "advice and assistance" to the Syrian National Authority, "in order to help them enhance their skills and expertise to facilitate effective, autonomous, national implementation".
Basically, member-countries are expected to do their own implementation at their own pace, with the OPCW merely assisting and verifying.
A further point to note is that the Chemical Weapons Convention also has an annex on confidentiality. Information, it says, shall be considered confidential "if it is so designated by the State Party from which the information was obtained and to which the information refers".
This seems to mean that the Assad regime could insist on as much confidentiality as it likes, thus preventing the level of public disclosure that would be needed to satisfy world opinion in the current circumstances.
Clearly, that is not the way to go if the Russian initiative is a genuine attempt to remove chemical weapons from the Syrian conflict. The situation demands something much stronger and, if airstrikes are to be avoided, that will have to be done through the Security Council. Which brings us back to Square One, and the question of whether Russia will continue to block it.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 11 September 2013