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.

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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

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4 reader comments

  1. Jan Culik says:

    I find it incredible that in his Channel Four News report from Beirut on Wednesday 11th, Alex Thomson talked about how everyone in the Lebanon is sceptical about Putin’s proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control and did not mention the fact that the Lebanese president supports Putin’s initiative.


    In what cafes in the Lebanon does Alex Thomson spend his time. Does he ever talk to real people?

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    The proposed military invasion (by missiles and/or bombs this time) has nothing to do with chemical weapons.

    It has everything to do with the West trying to get rid of a dictator who has shown he won’t be one of their puppets, unlike the Saudis/Kuwaitis/Bahrainis/Qataris/Emirates/Omanis/Yemenis (some of the time).

    The US, British and French thugs and invasion-monkeys have simply used chemical weapons as an excuse, as they did Iraq’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”

    And if it does happen, I hope someone keeps a body count of the innocent casualties because you can bet your bottom Tomahawk missile it will be higher than the body count in the alleged chemcial weapons attack – for which of course we still await evidence of who was culpable before we send off our young men and women to die too.

    Fool me once, shame on you……Fool me twice, shame on me.


  3. Y.S. says:

    Only one thing is important to Assad, regime survival. He will say anything as long as he and his minority led government stays in charge.
    The future for the majority Syrians is bleak. No one is comming to their rescue, not even the U.N., the killings will go on.
    Someone said he is “draining the sea to catch the fish”, the numbers of people leaving Syria is proving this theory right.

  4. younis says:

    Thank you for your stand with simple Syrian people in the view of east and west ignorance of the crime against civilians in my country.
    Many people in my city Homs would like to send a plea to the World leaders through the press:
    What is called international community continues to give Assad leeway and time to eradicate Sunni Syrians over last 3 years.
    I can reassure you the plan is working.
    May we ask the merciful advocates of the Human rights in the world for a little favour to help the desperate Syrians. Would you please turn a blind eye once more towards Assad and allow him to to use his chemical gas storage instead of traditional ammunition while attacking our areas and villages.
    Believe us dying by chemical weapons is usually quick painless and bloodless . We knew that and.
    It much better choice compares to die from hunger, wounds or amputation under the wrecked buildings.
    Please listen to us even for once, Will you…

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