Are Russia and Syria sincere about chemical disarmament?

Sharif Nashashibi
Sharif Nashashibi
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There has been much analysis of the logistical, technical and security difficulties of implementing the agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons. However, the sincerity (or otherwise) of the principal parties involved - the regime in Damascus and its staunch ally Russia - has been largely overlooked. Statements from both since the deal was accepted raise doubts.

In trying to avert a military strike against the regime following the use of chemical weapons last month, Moscow had been urging the United States, Britain and France to have faith in the United Nations and its inspectors in Syria.

Though the mandate was only to establish whether chemical weapons had been used, not who used them, the resulting U.N. report contains information that strongly indicates that the regime was responsible, as documented by Human Rights Watch, and news organizations such as the BBC and the New York Times.

The delivery method was rockets that have only been observed in use by regime forces, and their trajectories indicate that they were fired from a military base of the powerful Republican Guard, in territory firmly under government control.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has since changed its tune, heavily criticizing the report. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused inspectors of ignoring “very factual” evidence. As such, “we cannot describe the character of the conclusions as anything other than politicized, biased and one-sided,” he added. It should be noted that for all its talk of evidence implicating rebels, Russia has not yet made any of it public.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky described the findings as “indisputable,” and the report as “thoroughly objective.” Presumably, Moscow would have only been satisfied had its ally been exonerated.

Russia is also against a Chapter VII resolution at the U.N. Security Council, which would include the threat of force if the Syrian regime does not comply. Moscow would no doubt veto such a resolution, which is being pushed for by Washington, London and Paris. Since President Bashar al-Assad has said he will cooperate fully, Moscow’s opposition is illogical... unless it does not believe, or intend, that he will do so.

Russia is giving Assad a get-out-of-jail-free card: not all his chemical weapons may be destroyed, and there will be no forceful, U.N.-sanctioned punishment if that is the case.

Sharif Nashashibi

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said efforts at a Chapter VII resolution revealed “their true objective,” which is “to impose their will on the Syrian people.” This makes no sense, because adherence to such a resolution would render a military strike impossible. It is thus just as much a safeguard as it is a threat.

In effect, Damascus and Moscow are against the only thing that will ensure compliance. Not only that, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he “cannot be 100 percent sure” that all of the regime’s chemical weapons will be destroyed. This is coming from a country that co-brokered the deal with the United States, and despite the fact that as a vital military and political backer of Assad, Putin knows he can get what he wants from Damascus.

Russia, which has said any chemical weapons use in Syria is unacceptable, is basically giving Assad a get-out-of-jail-free card: not all his chemical weapons may be destroyed, and there will be no forceful, U.N.-sanctioned punishment if that is the case. As such, Syria’s national reconciliation minister may not have been just posturing when he described the deal as “a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends.”

Plan Bs

Any differences over the extent to which the Assad regime has cooperated may bring us back to square one, with certain Western states and their Middle Eastern allies calling for military action outside the United Nations because permanent, veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China will have once again blocked any measures against their ally.

“If Assad fails to comply with the framework, we are all agreed that there will be consequences,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, referring to Washington, London and Paris. “The threat of force remains, the threat is real,” he added. “We cannot have hollow words in the conduct of international affairs. Make no mistake, we have taken no options off the table.”

Assad and Putin may calculate that this is a bluff, in light of public opinion in those countries strongly opposed to any military intervention in Syria whatsoever. U.S. President Barack Obama may well find it even harder to sell such a proposition if Damascus is at least seen to be cooperating to some extent in its chemical disarmament.

However, if there is a sense that the regime is playing cat and mouse, this could exhaust the patience and increase the resolve of the U.S. administration and its allies, and possibly convince enough of their electorates that something must be done.

In their recent, bungled push for military action, Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande ended up with egg on their faces. They may not accept losing further credibility by being seen as impotent once again if Assad does not comply with his obligations. Next time round, they may have learned from their past mistakes to more effectively market their case.

That does not necessarily mean military intervention if public opinion will not accept that. The United States, Britain and France agreed last week to increase their backing for Syrian rebels, and there has been a recent rise in military supplies from Arab states.

This could be accelerated and expanded, as a less politically risky alternative to getting directly involved. Indeed, domestic opposition to arming the rebels, while widespread, has been nowhere near as vocal, and has not led to street protests.

There are those who will argue that I am being overly cynical about a disarmament process that has only just begun. However, in an ever-worsening conflict that this chemical weapons agreement does nothing to alleviate, any credible cause for optimism died long ago.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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