This citizen journalism image, taken on August 4, 2012, purports to show shelling in Zabadani, near Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
Even before the wrangling over every word of a new Security Council resolution on Syria begins, key governments around the world have begun searching for someone with global credibility to lead a team of weapons inspectors on a mission that could be more difficult than the vexed effort to disarm Iraq. Most obvious among the risks is that the task of finding and disposing of chemical weapons would be taking place in a country in civil war—and in an unprecedented hurry, under pressure from Washington and others. As in Iraq, there will be the nightmare of having to decide what claims of compliance to believe from a dictatorial regime. In Syria, neither the government nor rebel groups are considered trustworthy.
In the Security Council over coming days and weeks, it may be the Russians, not the Americans, who can bring the discussion to a useful conclusion. Back in Moscow, Russia has a uniquely qualified diplomatic expert, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He was ambassador to the United Nations for five years during some of the most turbulent days for the UN disarmament teams in Iraq in the 1990s, and played an active role in keeping diplomatic lines open to the Iraqis in order to gain some agreements from them, often to the annoyance of the Clinton administration.
Russia has now joined Britain, France and the United States in backing a proposed resolution in the Security Council that could open the way to punitive action against Syria. That means four out of five permanent member of the Council are in agreement. China has not yet been heard from officially, but is not expected to block the move, at least not at this point.
Lavrov, not President Vladimir Putin, appears to have been the author of the current plan to which Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, has so hurriedly agreed, according to Charles Duelfer, an American intelligence expert who led inspections in Iraq by the United Nations Special Commission, known as UNSCOM. Duelfer later headed UNSCOM before it collapsed in a welter of controversies at the end of the 1990s.
In the closing weeks of 1999, the Security Council tried again with the creation of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq (UNMOVIC) amid squabbles and standoffs. Two years later, the council was asked for yet another in a series of “full, final and complete” disclosures of its weapons programs. When the Iraqis produced one, a struggle ensued between the US and UNMOVIC about how much of the material should be in the public domain. Hans Blix, the Swedish former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency who had been called out of retirement by Kofi Annan to head the new Iraqi inspection commission, noted later in his book Disarming Iraq that Lavrov, who had been at the center of maneuvers to untangle the dispute, “summed up the situation accurately when he said that the procedure had been bad but the result was good.” UNMOVIC was essentially thrown out of Iraq by the US in early 2003, so that the Bush administration could get on with its war.
“The origins of this whole initiative on handling or resolving the [Syrian] WMD issue that President Obama identified, seems to come from Lavrov, which is, in retrospect, not surprising given Lavrov’s background,” Duelfer said in an interview. “He had five years of being the Russian ambassador to the UN in the most contentious Iraqi inspection days, and he certainly knew what the inspectors did and didn’t do. Looking back at it, I think Russia was more successful than anybody even knew.”
Now, in dealing with Syria, he said, Lavrov not only knows the history of weapons inspections, but also “understands Bashar al-Assad better than we do.” Time and rational thinking is wasted on angst Washington over whether the US “loses” if Russia takes the lead, Duelfer said. “Washington gets into a defensive protective crouch every time the Russians propose something.” The reaction is all too bipartisan.