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US-Russia deal demands many ground troops in Syria. Here's why

Analysis: The chemical weapons plan seems great, but could require 75,000 soldiers. If the US won't send them, will Russia?

Us russia deal syria chemical weapons boots on the groundEnlarge
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) holds a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on September 14, 2013 after they met for talks on Syria's chemical weapons. (LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images)

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