UN Security Council Nears Vote on Syria Chemical Measure

After weeks of negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, the United Nations Security Council set a vote tonight on a resolution requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons.

An agreement yesterday on terms for the resolution unites international pressure against Assad, said a U.S. State Department official who described the accord as historic and unprecedented. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic talks.

The Security Council has scheduled a meeting on the agreement today at 8 p.m. New York time.

The resolution leaves unanswered questions about how, when or to whom the Syrian leader must deliver an estimated 1,000 tons of nerve gas and other chemical weapons and their precursors. It also doesn’t specify how the UN and its Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons could determine whether Assad has complied or how the Security Council might compel Syria to honor the agreement.

“There are legitimate concerns as to how, technically, we’re going to be getting those chemical weapons out while there’s still fighting going on,” U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters today at the White House. “Nevertheless, this represents potentially a significant step forward.”

Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters in New York last night that the U.S. and Russia had submitted a draft plan to disarm Syria of chemical weapons to the executive council of the chemical weapons body in the Netherlands. That group, based in The Hague, is expected to vote today on a detailed road map to locate, secure, remove and eventually destroy Syria’s toxic arsenal.

Punitive Measures

Agreement on the UN’s Syria resolution had been complicated by disagreements between the U.S. and Russia over a number of issues, including the threat of military force or other punitive measures against Assad’s government if it fails to give up its chemical weapons.

While the document authorizes the Security Council to implement punitive measures, it doesn’t threaten the automatic use of force against Assad’s regime, as the U.S. and its European allies had wanted. Instead, it calls for the UN “to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.”

Russia, an Assad ally, has used its veto to block previous Security Council attempts to censure the Syrian regime for actions during a 2 1/2-year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions more, according to UN estimates.

Rebel Groups

The Russians, who with Assad have argued that rebel groups also have used chemical weapons, balked at language the U.S., France and the U.K. wanted holding Assad’s regime responsible for the gas attacks. Instead, the UN resolution calls for punitive action “for any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The resolution also doesn’t specify what timetable Assad must meet to free Syria of its chemical arms by the middle of next year, a deadline set in a framework agreement reached this month in Geneva between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Assad’s regime has portrayed the Geneva accord as a victory in a battle to foil U.S. plans for the future of Syria. Analysts, including James Fallon at Control Risks in Dubai, have said that implementing the agreement could take years, allowing Assad to stay in power unless rebel forces topple him.

Practical Hurdles

Even if the deal born in Geneva succeeds in eliminating Assad’s entire stockpile of chemical weapons on the stated timetable, which is unlikely given the practical hurdles, that wouldn’t tip the balance of power against the Syrian leader, said a U.S. official who follows the Syrian conflict closely.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, said yesterday that Assad’s arsenal of conventional weapons, especially artillery and air power, has accounted for more than 98 percent of the casualties the regime has inflicted in the war.

Syria’s military has been resupplied by Iran and remains strong and united enough to overcome the divided and scattered rebel groups and maintain the regime’s hold on the capital, the Alawite heartland on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and a corridor between the two, the U.S. official added.

The official said that even if the chemical weapons agreement holds, Assad may have gotten a good deal by agreeing to give up his nerve gas and other chemical weapons and thus avoid a U.S. military strike that could have damaged his conventional arsenal and scattered and demoralized his troops.

Militant Rebels

In addition, the official said, internecine fighting among militant Islamic rebel groups, some with close ties to the Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaeda, and more moderate fighters has strengthened Assad’s hand and created new doubts about U.S. and European efforts to arm and train rebel groups.

In particular, the official said, two or three of the 13 rebel groups that defected to the extremists on Sept. 25 had been under consideration for receiving Western aid.

The Hague-based chemical weapons body is expected to adopt the U.S.-Russia plan by about 4 p.m. New York time, clearing the way for a Security Council vote, according to the U.K.’s UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant.

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