BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — As game-changing events go, it was remarkably restrained: neither US Secretary of State John Kerry nor Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed overly excited by Saturday’s announcement of a framework agreement between their two countries on securing and destroying Syria’s immense stockpile of chemical weapons.
Kerry gave some hint of the problem by invoking an old Russian proverb made famous in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan, “doveryai no proveryai” or “trust but verify.”
It was in need of an update, Kerry said.
“We have committed to a standard that says verify and verify,” he said, speaking at a press conference in Geneva. Forget the trust.
Looking at the diplomats’ stony faces, one could not help but think that they shared the same reservations expressed by many informed observers.
“Beware of this deal,” Amy Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, told The New York Times earlier in the week. “It’s deceptively attractive.”
The plan outlined by the United States and Russia provides a lickety-split approach to dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons that glosses over many devilish details.
Within a week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must provide a comprehensive list of his chemical weapons, along with their locations. By November, the plan has weapons specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons completing their initial on-site inspections. The agreement also envisages the “complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.”
Given the size of Assad’s stockpiles and the challenges of dealing with them in the midst of a brutal and fragmented civil war, this timeline might seem a tad rosy.
Assad has “one of the biggest chemical weapons programs in the region and even in the world," according to Dieter Rothbacher, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq. "It took us three years to destroy that stuff under UN supervision in Iraq."
It is not difficult to understand why so many people embraced the so-called Russian proposal.
It saves Assad from potentially destabilizing military action, and spares the American president a humiliating showdown with Congress. It also burnishes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic credentials, with some pundits already talking of nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But if experts are to be believed, this plan may turn out to be a lot more dangerous than the “unbelievably small” strikes previously contemplated by President Barack Obama.
Within Syria, where groups like pro-regime Lebanese militia Hezbollah and anti-Assad Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are muddying the waters as they add to the violence, the task of locating, securing, and destroying Syria’s immense stores of chemical weapons will be nearly impossible without military intervention.
“We’re talking boots on the ground,” a former United Nations weapons inspector from Iraq told The New York Times anonymously. “We’re not talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have layers of security.”
It wouldn't just be a few boots either, according to Rothbacher. "There are calculations that to secure (the weapons) up to 75,000 ground troops are needed," he told Reuters.
But that is a taboo subject, especially for the White House, which has been at pains to assure a skeptical American public that they are not going to get dragged into another Middle East conflict.
“We do not envision boots on the ground,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said replying to a reporter’s question on Wednesday.
However, he did not slam the door completely.
“The process by which chemical weapons would be identified, verified, secured, and removed from Assad’s control is obviously a complicated one,” he added. “And… I don't pretend to know all the parameters of what that would look like.”
It might, in fact, look very much like war.
“Obama's wrong,” wrote Joshua Foust, an analyst on international security. “Syria's chemical weapons require boots on the ground.”
Protecting weapons inspectors, safeguarding weapons depots and ensuring that none of the groups involved in Syria’s conflict gets any ideas about hijacking them will be next to impossible without a ceasefire, he said.
“Unfortunately a ceasefire is even less likely than deploying thousands of troops,” wrote Foust. “Even if Russia could get the Assad regime to agree to one — it never has — the many pro-government militias that have sprung up near cities like Aleppo probably wouldn’t obey it anyhow … That leaves troops — tens of thousands of troops — as the only remotely feasible way to carry out the dismantling plan for Syria’s chemical weapons.”
But whose troops would they be?
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers volunteered the Arab League, which, he said, is "willing to provide the support we need, including troops to go in and help secure those weapons systems, because they know how dangerous it is if it proliferates around the Levant."
Foust remained skeptical.
“I think Rogers is a bit optimistic about the League's capacity to take direct action,” Foust told GlobalPost. “They tend to prefer conferring legitimacy on western militaries rather than getting their hands dirty.”
Cheryl Rofer, a chemist who supervised a team responsible for destroying chemical warfare agents at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Foreign Policy magazine that the only two entities that really know how to get rid of chemical weapons are the Russian and American militaries.
Those specially trained troops would need to stay in Syria for years given the amount of time it would take to build and then operate the disposal facilities, she added.
The American public has made it clear that it is in no mood for more foreign adventures; even after Obama’s plea to the nation Tuesday most poll respondents were opposed to intervention in Syria.
Foust speculated that the Russians could step in — but that would be a difficult sell in Washington. While Americans might balk at being the world’s policeman, they do not seem ready to cede the privilege to anyone else, especially Moscow.
There is still a lot of Cold War-style enmity toward Russia and its leaders, as became apparent on Thursday, when the Russian president published an op-ed piece in The New York Times taking Obama to task for his bellicose stance:
“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States,” wrote Putin. “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.”
This was too much for America’s lawmakers.
House Speaker John Boehner declared himself “insulted” by the piece, while Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, was more graphic.
"I almost wanted to vomit," he said.
While the denizens of Capitol Hill nurse their hurt feelings and delicate digestions, the rebel groups that are the supposed beneficiaries of Washington’s largesse are furious at what they see as betrayal.
“What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?” Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said at a televised press conference in Istanbul Saturday. “We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.”
In short, the “diplomatic” solution touted in Geneva will most likely require tens of thousands of troops and a commitment that could last for a decade and cost billions, if not trillions, of dollars. It has already alienated the groups the United States is supposed to be supporting in Syria's civil war and could place weapons inspectors in the crossfire.
Hardly a win-win situation.