Russia says it is working on a “concrete plan” that would see Syria’s chemical weapons dismantled. How might this be achieved and what are the obstacles?
Mr Kerry said he did not expect this to happen, but Syria’s ally and arms supplier Russia, backed by Iran and China, is now drawing up proposals it hopes will lead to the suspension of plans for an attack on the Assad regime.
The possibility of success is extremely low. It is going to be extraordinarily hard, but it has to be attempted. Xenia Dormandy, Chatham House
Syria is believed to have large stocks of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agents (sarin is thought to have been used in the attack on 21 August which led to the current crisis).
It has never signed a global treaty banning the storage of chemical weapons, but signed the 1925 treaty which bans the use of these munitions.
At this early stage, there are numerous diplomatic hurdles to overcome.
Xenia Dormandy, head of the US programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, told Channel 4 News: “The possibility of success is extremely low. It is going to be extraordinarily hard, but it has to be attempted.
“There needs to be huge amounts of trust and goodwill, and there’s a question whether this is even viable. But the use of weapons is a last resort and if there’s a way of bringing Syria into the chemical weapons convention, that should be attempted.
“Because of the speed at which this is moving, we will have a pretty good indication over the next few days how serious Russia and Syria are.”
France, which supports US plans for military action, is drawing up a UN Security Council resolution setting out terms for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and warning of “serious consequences” if it does not co-operate.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Syrian regime would have to act “without delay” in revealing the extent of its chemical weapons stockpiles and agreeing to put them under international supervision.
The draft resolution would include an explicit condemnation of the 21 August attack, which the Syrian government has blamed on anti-Assad rebel forces.
It would also contain a call for those behind the attack to be punished at the International Criminal Court – and would be militarily enforceable.
Even though Syria denies involvement in the attack, it is difficult to imagine it signing up to some of these provisions.
Ms Dormandy said the French draft resolution was the “first evidence to give us an indication of the seriousness with which Russia and Syria are taking this”.
She added: “The west will want to have very strong, clear language. Any resolution will have to be agreed by the security council, which would require Russia and China’s approval. The chances are that Russia will be talking to Syria to ensure Syria can agree upon this.
“There’s no question that the international community is going to go for something that has far less wriggle room than previous resolutions. The west will make sure it’s watertight, ideally with specific dates. The question is whether Russia is going to go along with such language.”
Assuming there is a diplomatic breakthrough, with Syria agreeing to co-operate in a way that satisfies the US, the hard work begins.
Dina Esfandiary, from the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Channel 4 News: “Most likely is that the west would require Assad to declare his stockpiles and would hope he is not going to lie.
“Declaring the stockpiles could be achieved pretty quickly. After that is where it gets complicated. The OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) would have to send in inspectors. They would have to verify Assad’s statement and make sure he is telling the truth about how many chemical weapons he has and where they are.
It’s absolutely unlikely that Assad will declare his entire arsenal and that you’ll be able to destroy it in a short time frame. But if you’re even able to degrade his capability, it’s worth pursuing. Dina Esfandiary, IISS
“Once you’ve verified, the idea would be to dismantle production plants and destroy stockpiles. The problem here is that people want to move as fast as possible, but this is likely to take years.”
Ms Esfandiary pointed to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, which agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2003. Eight years later, with the country in civil war, much of Libya’s chemical weapons capability was still intact.
Assad is believed to have moved his chemical munitions around the country to prevent their seizure by the rebels, which would make them harder to find, while the daily violence would make it difficult for the inspectors to operate.
“This would be going on in the midst of a civil war, with the inspectors a target for those trying to derail the project,” said Ms Esfandiary.
“It’s absolutely unlikely that Assad will declare his entire arsenal and that you’ll be able to destroy it in a short time frame. But if you’re even able to degrade his capability, it’s worth pursuing.
“If you’re trying to address Syria’s chemical weapons programme because of the attack in August, then this is the way to do it.”