12 Sep 2013

Syria: chemical weapons plan is a success… at buying time

Here in Beirut – let’s put this politely – there is scepticism that any plan to put Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal beyond use is anything but dead on arrival.

Like war in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting into CW is easy for governments. Getting out of them incredibly difficult.

A Syrian soldier stands near a clock with a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Haffeh town near Latakia city

The USA and Russia for instance- the key brokers to the current are plan – are now 12 years behind schedule to disarm their own stockpiles according to globally-agreed treaty.

And neither country is, internally, the bloodbath that is Syria.

No chance

I have been with the UN in their convoys of armoured and soft-skin white jeeps. Been with them around Damascus, outside and inside Homs, north of that city and to Qusair and many another towns and cities torn up by the continuing warfare.

I have seen them unable to leave their hotels for days because no security has been guaranteed. Seen them stopped in their tracks because they come under fire from both sides. Seen them and driven with them at breakneck speed to escape such ambush.

And all this please note, when far from inspecting the most sensitive military sites and installations in one of the most security-conscious nations on the planet,  the UN was merely attempting to monitor a ceasefire that did not exist under the orders of the hapless Kofi Annan.

What hope then – what grain of serious hope, that for one hour such a thing can be attempted as to guard, inspect, secure and neutralise the scores of tunnels, bunkers, buildings, bases and who knows what hidey-holes in which the known amounts of VX, sarin and all the other poisons are currently secreted?

No chance.

‘Two-fingers to Obama’

For a start you cannot even move securely on the ground to most of the suspected installations. Remember that the only reason weapons inspectors were ever on the ground in the first place in Syria, that terrible day on 21 August, was because they had been trying to get into Syria for weeks on end with zero success. The mission thwarted by the security situation.

Is all this somehow supposed to stop, so that some body of foreigners can do their job? That body reckoned to be at least 70,000 foreign soldiers. Yes 70,000. And for a job which will take years to complete.

The Russians took over six years in Iraq to do the job. Simply blowing these things up out in the desert is out of the question given the poison plume that would be released and a host of other security and practical obstacles. It is painstaking, meticulous and very, very time-consuming.

There is zero possibility this can happen on the ground barring a complete miracle. Chemical weapons have killed a tiny fraction – less then two per cent – of those killed in this two-and-a-half-year-old war. The government resumed air-bombardment of East Ghouta yesterday, where the apparent chemical attack took place, in a confident two fingers to Obama and his anger.

Since 21 August more than twice the number of those killed in the Ghouta attack have been killed by conventional weaponry across Syria. And that is if you accept John Kerry’s unproven figure of 1,400 or so. If you take the verified Medicin sans Frontieres number of at least 350 then the mathematics of conventional horror get worse – do the sums.

Buying time

Far from being about really getting rid of chemical weapons, what the Russian scheme has done is address the one key thing about which Damascus, Moscow and Washington DC all agree – the need to buy time.

Everyone gets to win a little bit more after the diplo-pile-up of recent weeks.  Now all parties get at least a few weeks to regroup in the immediacy of violent warfare.

That is why these leaders started to take the plan ‘seriously’ – it is all about time, almost nothing to do with really achieving anything over chemical weapons.

That is what this is about in real terms. Conditions being what they are in the chaos of Syria, they will have more success investigating CW on Mars.

Follow @alextomo on Twitter

Read more:

Dear America… from President Putin

View from Beirut: ‘Russian plan won’t work’

For Russia, injustice and cruelty in Syria is better than instability

Syria’s lesson is that exhaustive diplomacy must precede force

Tweets by @alextomo