Obama to Assad: Weapons Cache must be Verifiable, or there will be Consequences

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s September 17, 2013 blog post.

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On Friday President Barrack Obama told Kuwait’s Emir Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah that any diplomatic solution in Syria depended on President Bashar al-Assad listing all of the  chemical weapons in his arsenal, and signing on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Secretary of State John Kerry echoing the president’s remarks said that Assad must turn over the necessary data in less than the sixty day time frame allowed under the accord.  

The U.S. negotiators spent three days in Geneva negotiating with the Russians on how to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, and how to dispose of the scattered lethal weapons. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov finally reached an agreement, giving Syria until September 21 to submit “a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”

Russia convinced President Bashar al-Assad to join the CWC and give up Syria’s cache of chemical weapons. The Obama administration insists that any agreement contain steps “to ensure verification and implementation procedures with penalties” for failing to act timely.

President Obama, and President Vladimir Putin divided over the fate of Mr. Assad, stated in an ABC interview that “As long as Assad is in power there is going to be some sort of conflict there”. Russia’s support of Mr. Assad is viewed as a ploy to stall for more time to keep him in power.

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) argue that military action is needed to punish Mr. Assad for using chemical weapons. They continue to press for a military strike, believing a diplomatic solution will not end the conflict or remove Mr. Assad from power. The U.S. needs to save face they noted, since Russia has undermined the U.S. commitment to Syrian opposition groups.The senators have also criticized Mr. Obama for not acting sooner to support the rebels with arms. Polls indicate that eighty percent of Americans do not support military action or arming the rebels, preferring a diplomatic solution.

The world is watching President Obama who procrastinated for over two years, which has allowed the civil war in Syria to escalate with almost 100,000 being killed. The Syrian military, rebel groups, and al-Qaeda linked Islamists are all responsible for the killing of innocent civilians. The use of chemical weapons in August, in which 1,400 people died, has become the pivotal point for the Obama administration calling for punitive punishment against the Assad regime.

The CWC agreement will be a challenge to enforce, which will require patience on the part of the United States. Military action can be considered at a later date for non-compliance by Syria, since such action could be considered an act of war.

The CIA has clandestinely been supplying arms to the rebels, sending shipments through neighboring Turkey. Weapons have also been funneled through Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with arms ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as noted in a New York Times article. The Obama Administration reportedly knew the arms were ending up in the wrong hands.

In 2011, after Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall in Libya, unprotected weapons reached al-Qaeda Islamists in Mali who took control of two-thirds of the country. There were also hundreds of pounds of mustard gas and other lethal chemical agents supposedly protected in Libyan military bunkers, which today still await being destroyed. The new interim government has said it could take until 2016 to destroy all the weapons. Meanwhile the Islamists in Libya continue to seek control with constant attacks against government leaders. There should be concern that these weapons were not put under international control, as the U.S. is pressing for in Syria to keep them from reaching the Islamists.

Mr. Assad knows that the disposal of chemical weapons is the first step by the U.S. to oust him from office, which will add to his intransigence. The Alawite tribal clan also fears that they will be slaughtered by rebels and Islamists if Mr. Assad is deposed. Last week almost thirty Alawites were singled out and killed by rebels in a small village in central Syria, human rights sources reported. Mr. Gaddafi’s Warfalla tribal clan met the same fate after his demise in Sirte a town in eastern Libya.

As in Libya, Ayman al-Zawahiri al-Qaeda’s leader has called upon Muslims to join in Syria’s fight which has brought many recruits from parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. So far over 1,000 jihadists have answered the call, with almost 100 coming from the United States.

A diplomatic solution is paramount, or the civil war could erupt into a regional conflict which will draw-in American boots. The removal of the chemical weapons may still necessitate U.S. soldiers being put in harm’s way. The stockpiles of chemical weapons could still also reach the al-Qaeda linked Islamists. Any scenario short of a diplomatic solution is fraught with the risk of more loss of life.

The stalled Geneva Peace Conference needs to be restarted immediately, as the chemical weapons destruction process moves forward. Mr. Kerry on Monday said Mr. Assad has lost all legitimacy to govern the country: “We remain committed to the opposition and committed to the Geneva process which calls for a transition government ….that’s our end strategic goal.”

The ousting of Mr. Assad will not bring the democratic solution that the U.S. envisions, without an endgame plan that includes a secular leader who can unite the country. Regime change in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen has proven how difficult it is to achieve peace. Bloodshed will continue in Syria if the multi-ethnic tribal and religious factions, who want a piece of the turf, are not included in the peace conference. At the same time Al-Qaeda linked Islamists will continue to destabilize Syria in their quest to create an Islamic state ruled under Sharia law.

Russia for the time being is the best alternative to help the U.S. achieve a diplomatic solution, which may include temporarily leaving Mr. Assad in place. Mistrust of Mr. Putin by the Obama administration must subside, or any possible peace process will slow down and mar the primary goal of removing the weapons of mass destruction.

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