The KGB used to specialize in a form of political subversion and sabotage known as “active measures,” which included everything from clandestine assassinations of dissidents to the spread of disinformation and counterfeit intelligence designed to hoodwink and weaken the West. At their most elegant, active measures were intended to make a dupe feel that he himself had originated some ultimately self-defeating idea or stratagem when the true credit belonged to Moscow Center. The quixotic and idiotic plan to try and rid Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons in the midst of a punishing civil war did not arise because of a gaffe made by John Kerry. We know from the New York Times that it arose because Vladimir Putin broached it to the president of the United States at the G20 in St. Petersburg, and the president then duly conveyed it to his national security advisor Susan Rice, who then briefed Kerry, who then said the following in London about how Assad might avoid US airstrikes for unleashing sarin gas in Damascus: “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
It can’t be done, obviously, but Kerry already knew that Russia was interested in pretending it can be, and that’s what counted. It’s open to speculation as to whether the secretary of state subconsciously channeled prior information and ad-libbed the above or he was instructed in the most delicate way possible to issue a public RSVP to the Kremlin’s invitation. Whatever the case, the White House would have a still-admiring press believe that it was just as surprised as everyone else that one of Kerry’s allegedly uncorked moments at the podium suddenly led to a “diplomatic breakthrough.” The timing and circumstances of this deal are beyond suspect. The United States was in an obvious bind. Its commander-in-chief didn’t want to go to war with Syria and was nonetheless asking Congress to authorize one. Faced with the prospect of legislative defeat and national humiliation, Barack Obama needed rescuing from his own famed ambivalence. Who better for the job than the ever constant KGB czar bearing not only a late-breaking offer but a way for the administration to argue that it had been the one to accidentally precipitate it?
I cannot recall another episode in American history in which Washington’s top diplomat was called a liar one week by a head of state, only to then be embraced as a partner in peace the next week by that state’s foreign minister. Obama has gone from being a squish on crimes against humanity to acting as a junior broker to Moscow’s conflict resolution, never mind that the conflict is largely of Moscow’s own making. Putin, meanwhile, has gone from prevailing upon “the Nobel Peace Prize winner” to being advanced by his own state-controlled news organs as the next nominee for that overrated laurel. More important, as the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia wrote in a glowing editorial for its own side, Russia has gone from being a pariah for persecuting gays, harboring a fugitive American intelligence contractor, and arming and defending a criminal regime, to being a full-fledged superpower again. “In a way that previously had been inconceivable,” the paper’s Boris Mezhuyev wrote, “Russia returned the international authority to itself.”
Still, only a brash American exceptionalist would balk at Russia’s return to geopolitical prominence if the yields of this proposal weren’t so imaginary. The US and Russia don’t agree on the details and it’s the details that matter. The US wants to keep naval warships in the Mediterranean until Assad complies with chemical disarmament. Russia says those ships can go home now. “We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic,” Lavrov said on the first day of his three-day wrangle with Kerry in Geneva about chemical disarmament. “I am convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow peaceful way of resolution of conflict in Syria.” This means the US should back off and let Russia help Assad finish off the armed opposition by other means, which it’s already started to do. In the last week, “[w]arplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus,” noted the Washington Post.
Syria will formally accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention on October 14, according to Ban Ki-Moon. Yet, Assad has already thrown up plenty of preconditions for compliance with sequestration and destruction of his sarin, VX, mustard, and sulfur stockpiles and precursor agents, in an interview with another Russian state media outlet, Rossiya 24. These preconditions include but are probably not limited to the following: Israel should ratify Convention first (it has only signed it); the US should stop arming the Syrian opposition at a time when the US has only just begun arming it; and airstrikes should be categorically abandoned. Only then, Assad said, would a full accounting of the his WMD program be able to commence in 30 days time from date of accession, which is standard procedure under the fine print of the Convention.
Except, 30 days is quite a while to wait as “conventional” rockets and missiles and incendiary bombs continue to rain down on Syrians. Kerry’s initial response to this demand was sensibly skeptical: “There is nothing standard about this process. The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough.”
But if his administration has taught us anything, it’s that yesterday’s prohibition is tomorrow’s permission slip. Now, according to the joint US-Russian “framework,” Assad can have his 30 days following a week’s deadline to submit “a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities” of all the toxins he’s got. Inspectors are then expected to be allowed unfettered access to all of Syria’s chemical facilities and to complete their “initial...on-site inspections” (“initial” here is not defined) by November. Then, the last of the 1,000 or so metric tons of chemical agents should all be eliminated “in the first half of 2014.” Even Soviet five-year plans were given two years to reach fruition.
What would an accelerated chemical disarmament policy require? Here’s a former UN weapons inspector from Iraq talking to the Times: “We’re talking boots on the ground. We’re not talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have layers of security.” In hoping to avert what Kerry termed “unbelievably small” airstrikes, Russia has thus decided to advocate a virtual foreign occupation of Syria. I’m not sure what this move is called in chess.
Moreover, eliminating such a large and entrenched chemical program as Syria’s could also take years, if not decades. The regime has already moved unknown quantities of its nerve agents to 50 sites throughout the country and will no doubt try to hide plenty more if and when the international monitors arrive. According to the Wall Street Journal, citing officials briefed on the latest US intelligence, “Unit 450—a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that manages the regime's program—has been moving the stocks around for months.” One unnamed US official told the newspaper: “We know a lot less than we did six months ago about where the chemical weapons are.” It pays to complement this assessment with what another unnamed official, or perhaps the same one, told the Times: “We only know a good deal about 19 of [the sites].” So where do we learn about the other 31? From Bashar al-Assad. Here’s the framework again: “The United States and Russian Federation expect Syria to submit, within a week, 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.” So much for Kerry not taking the regime at its word, then.
As it happens, we do know a great deal about one chemical facility, in al-Safira, Aleppo. As my colleague James Miller has pointed out, this installation has been besieged for months, mainly by jihadist rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both al-Qaeda franchises. The chances are slim that they will quit scene once the rifle-wielding Hans Blixes land and ask them to. The chances are excellent, however, that Assad’s own security forces or any number of his Alawite and Shiite militiamen will open fire on inspectors in an attempt to blame “terrorists.” Russia will no doubt back the regime’s claims if and when this happens and Obama will not be in any good position to argue otherwise since even the rebels he nominally supports think this is a farce. As ever, Moscow is completely on-script with its ally whereas the United States hasn’t even consulted its own.
Dan Kaszeta, former US Army Chemical Corps officer with 22 years of experience in chemical defense, seems to have misplaced his audacity of hope for this plan’s successful implementation. In an email, he told me: “Nothing of the sort has ever been attempted, and this sort of work needs a permissive environment, not an active war zone.”
The absurdity of seeking Russia’s help on Syria’s chemical disarmament is further underscored by the Kremlin’s unchanged position as to which party was responsible for facilitating such a spurt of heightened diplomacy. The Russians blame the August 21 sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta – which has now been confirmed by the United Nations – on rebels looking to gas themselves and women and children as a pretext for foreign intervention. In his much-discussed Times op-ed, Putin re-articulated this conspiracy theory, raising the yet unanswered question of how Russia purports to rid Syria of chemical weapons if it believes that its own client is no longer in control of them. Putin considers the majority of rebels to be al-Qaeda. By what historical precedent does he think anyone else can negotiate the surrender of nerve agents from Bin Ladenists? Asking the Russian Foreign Ministry to deal with this problem is like asking David Irving to preside as a judge at Nuremberg.
A few clever analysts have suggested that this is all part of his cunning scheme concocted by Obama to put the onus or “ownership” of this doomed initiative on Russia and then return to Congress with a sigh when it goes tits-up and say, “Now will you let me lob cruise missiles?” Even assuming that this is the case (and that’s a very charitable assumption), it’s a bad strategy borne of failed prior bad strategies. By the time Assad’s done toying with everybody, the Ghouta atrocity will have become a distant memory and what was already an unimpressive sense of urgency to respond will have become obsolete. A war-weary Congress in September is unlikely to grow more hawkish by November, much less by the first half of 2014. And if Obama foregoes the legislature next time, he’ll only have wasted anywhere from two months to a year to do what he might have done earlier and without the cost of telegraphing to the world that he hates himself for doing it.
“Delay, derail, obfuscate -- in three words, that’s what the Russian proposal is really about,” says a friend of mine on the Hill who understands the Kremlin better than most. Somehow I suspect Obama realizes what a mess he’s got himself into this time. He just doesn’t care.