US, Russia Agree on Syria Plan; UN Security Council Vote Could Come Later Today

In a continuation of Barack Obama’s pivot to diplomacy, it appears that the US and Russia, along with several other UN Security Council members, have come to an agreement on how to structure the UNSC resolution on the surrender and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Further good news comes in the early analysis of the disclosure by Syria of its chemical weapon stockpile, as it appears that most of the material is composed of binary precursors. Because of this, Syria can be effectively disarmed quickly by destruction of the mixing equipment. Further, these sarin precursors can be destroyed more quickly and safely than sarin that has already been prepared. Finally, hints are now being dropped that the rapid progress on the diplomatic front may have been brought about by a realization that Assad may not be in full control of the use of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Talks between the US and Russia had been stalled for some time over the issue of how Chapter 7 of the UN Charter would be invoked in the UNSC resolution. The US has favored putting that language into the resolution currently under discussion, spelling out military action to be taken should Syria default in its responsibilities in the disarming process. Russia has resisted such an automatic process. It appears that the issue has been resolved by making it clear that if Syria should violate the initial agreement, the Security Council will meet again to vote on invocation of Chapter 7 and potential military action. Although war hawks will dismiss this approach as allowing Syria to delay and obfuscate, it also prevents manipulation by the US to blow a minor violation out of proportion and initiate military action without a full hearing before the Security Council.

Reuters emphasizes the current absence of Chapter 7 consequences in the draft resolution in the opening of its article on developments:

Ending weeks of diplomatic deadlock, the United States and Russia agreed on Thursday on a U.N. Security Council draft resolution that would demand Syria give up its chemical arms, but does not threaten military force if it fails to comply.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said a deal was struck with Russia “legally obligating” Syria to give up its chemical stockpile and the measure went to the full Security Council in a closed-door meeting on Thursday night. U.N. diplomats said a vote could come within 24 hours.

The process which would be followed in the event of a violation of the agreement by Syria is described by the New York Times:

Western diplomats said the resolution would be legally binding and would stipulate that if Syria failed to abide by the terms, the Security Council would take measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the strongest form of a Council resolution. Such measures could include economic sanctions or even military action. But before any action could be taken, the issue would have to go back for further deliberations by the Security Council, on which Russia, like the other permanent members, holds a veto.

By making any Chapter 7 actions subject to a separate vote both the US and Russia will be forced to provide convincing evidence for the positions they take. The US won’t be able to move for military action on shaky grounds and Russia will be under a huge amount of pressure if they attempt to prevent a response to a clear violation. Gosh, such a process would put the UN into a position of functioning as it was intended. What a concept.

With all of the usual caveats that this is yet another transcription by Joby Warrick, there is very interesting and encouraging news coming from the initial disclosures on Syria’s chemical weapons:

U.S. and Russian officials now believe that the vast majority of Syria’s nerve agent stockpile consists of “unweaponized” liquid precursors that could be neutralized relatively quickly, lowering the risk that the toxins could be hidden away by the regime or stolen by terrorists.

A confidential assessment by the United States and Russia also concludes that Syria’s entire arsenal could be destroyed in about nine months, assuming that Syrian officials honor promises to cede control of the chemical assets to international inspectors, according to two people briefed on the analysis.

Because most of the material exists in a form where two components must be mixed to make the poison gas (remember the old two part epoxy glues?), destruction of the material is less of a problem:

Weapons experts not privy to the briefings described the findings as encouraging. Several noted that it is far easier to destroy precursor chemicals than battlefield-­ready liquid sarin or warheads already loaded with the toxin.

Even more importantly, though, a new route to disarming Syria quickly has opened up with this information:

If U.N. inspection teams can remove even one of the sarin precursors — or the equipment used for measuring and filling — they can all but eliminate Syria’s ability to launch a chemical attack even before the stockpile is completely destroyed, said Daryl Kimball, director of the Washington-­based Arms Control Association.

“The mixing equipment itself is essential to using chemical agents,” Kimball said. “If you prioritize the destruction of the equipment, you can largely deny Syria the ability to use these weapons again on Syrian soil.”

Warrick has also sprinkled his article two interesting nuggets for us to chew on regarding the August 21 chemical weapons attack. First, he reminds us of the US claim that Syrian soldiers were observed mixing sarin a few days before the attack:

U.S. surveillance systems observed Syrian troops mixing chemical precursors three days before sarin-filled rockets exploded in a Damascus suburb.

Warrick gives us no information on why the US saw this mixing going on but did not sound a general alarm or provide further surveillance information tracking the material to a specific launch site for rockets bearing the agent.

The second nugget is even more interesting, bringing out into the open speculation that the use of chemical agents may have been by Syrian troops operating without a direct order from Assad:

Both countries expressed optimism that Syria will comply with U.N. demands to surrender its chemical weapons. Syria’s arsenal was initially developed as a deterrent to a future Israeli attack, but Assad may now view the weapons as a liability after the international outcry over the Aug. 21 attack, White House officials said at the briefings.

The apparent change of heart also could reflect discord within the Syrian government over the use of sarin, which some U.S. officials suspect may have been ordered by a senior regime official without Assad’s authorization, the briefers said.

The rapid developments on the diplomatic front are much easier to understand if that is what happened. If Assad no longer feels that he is in control of the chemical weapons, his willingness to work with the UN and to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons become rational and responsible actions. Further, if Assad has shared this information with Russia, then their sudden move to stop protecting Syria at the UNSC makes more sense, as well. In fact, I wonder if the US dropped the insistence on automatic Chapter 7 language in the resolution because they now believe that to be the case, as well.

Despite all of this good news, I remain concerned about the lack of calls for a ceasefire to accompany the process of destroying the chemical arms. The very beginning of this process may have been planted, though, as I have seen several articles over the last few days mention the need for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war.

9 replies
  1. scribe says:

    That the chemical weapons appear to be binary further places in doubt the validity of the alleged rocket attacks and makes those images of unexploded rockets sticking out of debris piles which we saw the other week all the more likely to have been staged.

    There are two ways of putting binary CW into use, distinguished by how the precursors are mixed. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the US was going to go to binary CW both as a counterweight and deterrent to the then-massive Soviet stockpile and to replace obsolete and deteriorating 1950s-vintage weapons then in the stockpile. We went with one method. That was to have both precursors loaded into the warhead, but separated by a divider. When the warhead was launched, an internal mechanism would break down the divider and rapidly mix the two precursors while the warhead was in flight. Since, as I recall it, we intended to use mainly cannon artillery for the CW purpose, this was a logical use of the way an artillery projectile goes from cannon to target and of the projectile’s innate characteristics. On firing, a projectile is exposed to about forces of about 1000G (1000 times the force of gravity) which could be used to operate the mixing pistons and require a very stout shell to contain everything. This method had two advantages: the precursors could be loaded in a rear area (or even at the factory), so no one had to mess with pumping or pouring or measuring toxic chemicals, and the shells would have a longer “shelf life”. The usual material for artillery shells is forged steel.

    The other method is to mix the chemicals immediately before launching or load the projectile with the precursors and mix them immediately before launching or possibly during flight. This was more suitable for the relatively thin-walled projectiles used in artillery rockets, which were the preference in the Soviet bloc (including Syria) for delivery of CW. One didn’t need or use forged steel for artillery rockets – they didn’t go through the massive, sudden accelerations of cannon artillery shells. Thus, artillery rockets were cheaper for the Sovs to produce and therefore preferable. The downside is you really couldn’t store the rockets loaded with CW, so you had to have soldiers loading the projectiles near the battlefront with all the disadvantages that entailed.

    But, as the main post says, if one can get either one of the precursors or the mixers (or preferably both), then the CW are pretty useless. That’s not to say harmless – both the precursors used in binary sarin are nasty, toxic and even lethal. But neither is as lethal as sarin.

  2. Bay State Librul says:

    I’m optimistic.

    What do they mean by “not authorized by Assad”
    You mean he signs a document: “I am authorizing the use of chemical weapons” Rogue officers?
    Who in their right mind would sign such bull shit.
    The real question is would we be this far along if not for the threat?

  3. Jim White says:

    @Bay State Librul: The most likely scenario many people think of under “not authorized by Assad” goes back to claims by Idris that there are some people loyal to him that are still inside the Syrian military. In that case, this would have been a form of insider false flag. There are many variations on that, including simple dissent within the military where some felt CW were needed to move ahead in the civil war.

    As to the value of the threat, we’ll just have to continue disagreeing on that. I remain convinced that Obama was dead set on striking (even though he had actually admitted that his strike would accomplish exactly nothing) until he and Kerry got outfoxed by Lavrov and Putin (tricked into diplomacy)or outflanked by events (finally convinced that Assad admitted to not being in control). And I fully believe the situation would now be spiraling hopelessly out of control had the UK not voted against being involved to slow things down at a critical moment when Obama appeared to have the momentum to follow through on the plan.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    Some of this information from Warrick was clear before his article but obscured by the war hawks rush to war.

    First of all, it is clear that it is in the interest of both Russia and Syria (and Iran) to get chemical weapons out of Syria, given the uncertainty about the future of the regime. That is what makes the war hawk assumption of subterfuge overblown.

    Second, the Kerry-Lavrov agreement already has laid down the schedule for the events: immediate declaration (which is complete); inspection and destruction of mixing and production equipment by the end of November; destruction of chemical stocks by next year.

    Third, the most secure route for transport out of Syria is through Lebanon. Transport to a Lebanese port of all of one pre-cursor from Mediterranean Sea shipment either to US facilities or Russian facilities for destruction, followed by supervised transport of the other precursor could expedite the destruction of the chemical stocks. The countries who have been providing external support to the rebels could be held accountable for safe passage.

    When that is accomplished, Iran and Russia have two diplomatic targets: Israel, which possesses both Chemical and nuclear weapons and is not a signatory to the NPT and has not ratified the CWC; and Saudi ally Egypt, which has ratified the NPT but is not a signatory to the CWC. You have and will continue to hear calls from Rouhani and Putin for a WMD-free Middle East.

    IMO, the Chapter 7 language is a sop only to the French, US and UK warhawks. By the end of November it will have not practical basis.

  5. Bay State Librul says:

    @Jim White:

    Okay, but “tricked into diplomacy” is in my opinion a “first” in the annals of history. We got tricked into war by Bush/Cheney, but tricked
    into diplomacy made me chuckle.
    I’m not sure Obama is as hawkish as you think.
    I just hope Putin doesn’t pull a fast one.

  6. little hands. little eyes. they go around tellin great big lies says:

    Yes, the resolution’s passed, and look how Bloomberg hasbara reports it. It’s a classic example of illegal war propaganda in breach of CCPR Article 20.

    Notice how Bloomberg conceals the text of the resolution – or any link to it. Bloomberg even conceals the number of the resolution: [It’s Resolution 2118 (2013)].

    Bloomberg’s hacks put in links to make the article look grounded in fact. Almost all circle back to old Bloomberg crap. Now, if we escaped Bloomberg’s self-referential maze of links and actually looked at the resolution, What might we see?

    The Charter authority cited is Article 25. What does Article 25 say? “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.” Those UNSC decisions might invoke Chapter VI on Pacific Settlement of Disputes. Or, the UNSC might invoke Chapter XIV on the International Court of Justice. Or it might invoke Chapter VIII on regional arrangements, like the ongoing efforts to make the Middle East a zone free of WMDs. Why, the UNSC might even invoke Chapter VII.

    Bloomberg put in a link to Chapter VII, hoping that you won’t read it. Chapter VII reserves authority for force to the Security Council. The US government is trying to pervert Chapter VII into an authority for its unilateral threats of force. They want you to hear Chapter VII and blurt out “FORCE!!!” That’s why the US shoehorned a reference to Chapter VII into the resolution.

    But Chapter VII authority includes Article 40: “call upon the parties concerned to comply.” Chapter VII includes Article 41: decide “measures not involving the use of armed force.” Nothing in the resolution authorizes use of force, not even as a contingency.

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