How to Disarm During a Civil War

How to Disarm During a Civil War

If and when an inspection and disarmament commission is set up for Syria, can the UN mount a credible and effective mission?


Shelling in Syria
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.

Another difference between Iraq and Syria is that resistance from the countries under surveillance had different roots. The Iraqis were determined to end crippling sanctions imposed by the Security Council and member countries, and they had strong humanitarian support on that issue around the world.

“Syria is not doing this to get out of sanctions,” Duelfer said. “The incentive which presumably Lavrov is using with Assad is that by participating in this he will gain some legitimacy. The challenge, I would guess if I were in Bashar al-Assad’s position, would be: I need legitimacy which will grow over the rate of decay of the rebels. I think many inside and outside of government believe that there’s an increasing risk that a growing percentage of the rebels being bad, and they’re getting worse. I think that’s what Lavrov may have been pitching to Assad. He did that in a way with Iraq.” In the 1990s, Lavrov was able to wring some concessions from the Iraqi by apparently promising to help get them relief from sanctions—which in the end he couldn’t deliver.

In a news conference in Paris on Monday with the British and French foreign ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry made a strong point of saying that Assad can forget legitimacy. The removal of chemical weapons is only a first step, he said; the end goal is a political settlement and a new Syria.

If and when an inspection and disarmament commission is set up for Syria, can the UN mount a credible and effective mission? The job starts in the Security Council.

“The critical first step is getting the mandate written correctly,” Duelfer said. The privileges, the authorities, who is in charge of it—that’s really vital. If you don’t get that right, then the prospects for success and the prospects for getting results that people will agree on are going to be drastically reduced.

“If you do get a mandate with all the proper authority and it puts the burden on Syria to do all the heavy lifting, then there will be some kind of weird negotiations among the permanent five members of the Security Council over finding a chairman. The first informal list-building exercise is already going on. Council members will ask, Who knows this stuff and do they have any baggage and do they come from a country that would be considered relatively unbiased? That’s going on now.”

“Once a chairman is selected, it’s a relatively straightforward process to populate the organization,” he said. “You need report writers, you need experts in munitions, you need people who are scientists in chemical weapons, you need safety experts and so on. You round out a team of about thirty to sixty people.”

Because of the UN’s involvement in hands-on disarmament in recent decades, experienced scientists and arms experts can be readily found. The United States has supplied many of them, as have the Western Europeans and Russia. “There are people from UNMOVIC and UNSCOM out there,” Duelfer said. “There are people who have been attached to Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.” That organization monitors the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria last week suddenly said it would join.

There will be other issues the Security Council and the UN Secretariat will face in constructing a new disarmament body. Who will pay the inspectors’ salaries? In the case of Iraq, governments at first lent experts to UNSCOM at no employment cost to the UN. That led to accusations that the seconded specialists (among them numerous Americans) were too often spies. Under UNMOVIC rules, the UN paid the salaries.

Now that it is clearer that a Council resolution on Syria will be introduced under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, the wording will matter. Chapter 7 resolutions do not have to specify the potential for military action, as this one will most likely not do, in deference to the Russians and others, but such resolutions do allow for enforcement when countries are not in compliance.

Will the resolution creating a Syrian mission operate under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, as Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry were reported to have said in Geneva on Saturday? Chapter 7 resolutions may not carry a specific threat of the use of force, as some media organizations have said, but they do allow for enforcement of demands and have been interpreted as permitting a variety of actions in the past.

The Obama administration has said repeatedly that it maintains its right to attack Syrian targets whether or not there is a resolution, but many diplomats have come to believe that the US administration genuinely seeks to avoid war. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy for Syria, who has been critical of past American administrations and was opposed by them, said in Geneva recently that President Obama and his team, by contrast, were not “trigger happy.” From Brahimi, this was high praise.

Read The Nation’s editorial on the new opening for diplomacy in Syria.

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