Safeguarding Syrian chemical weapons: an opportunity for Russia-NATO cooperation?

By Ian Davis and Andreas Persbo

President Obama in his televised address on Tuesday said that he welcomed the Russian initiative that seeks to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. "It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, but this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies," Obama said. With key talks already started in Geneva to explore practical ways to formalise the Russian proposal, does this potential diplomatic breakthrough also offer an opportunity for cooperation between Russia and NATO?
Syria has now pledged to accede to the Chemical Weapon Convention, which would require it to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, but disagreements remain about how any disarmament would be enforced. While the US, UK and France are seeking a tough UN Security Council resolution, bolstered with the threat of force if Syria does not comply with its obligations, Russia is reportedly proposing a much milder, non-binding Security Council declaration.
President Putin has insisted that any disarmament process would work only if the US pledged to renounce the use of force, while Obama wants the threat of military action to remain on the table. However, if Moscow (with the declared support of Tehran and Beijing) can avert US military strikes by persuading Syria’s Assad to transfer all chemical weapons to an international authority, then the United States should not just welcome Russia’s proposal, but embrace it.
Of course, implementing and verifying the complete surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons will be truly difficult and take considerable time. The task for inspectors to mothball production, install padlocks, inventory the bulk agents and munitions, and then set up a destruction programme – all in a war zone – will be challenging. There are obvious risks to the inspectorate, which presumably will be international, and it is not clear whether the Syrian government can provide the necessary protection. There are also considerable operational concerns surrounding the idea of withdrawing chemical weapons to a few destruction sites in the country, given their vulnerability to theft. Transporting the sizable Syrian arsenal to a third country is remotely feasible – although will constitute a huge logistical venture. The option of waiting for the war to subside before implementing the destruction plan should be ruled out.
Until Syria accedes to the 1993 Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997, any accord involving Assad will need to be mediated through Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General. It was at his direction, that UN chemical inspectors were despatched to Syria to investigate the August 21 attacks. The UN has not said when it planned to release their report on that investigation.
The organization that implements CWC — the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — has verified the destruction of more than 80% of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons. If a verifiable plan can be reached, the OPCW is likely to play a central role in any Syrian disarmament process. However, the organization currently only has just over 100 inspectors who are already stretched thinly around the globe. How then to rapidly strengthen their ranks?
The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) previously provided in-house expertise. Unfortunately, the Security Council disbanded this unit in June 2007. Many lessons, however, remain in written form and are stored on the organization’s archived website. While UNMOVIC itself cannot be deployed – it’s staff is hence long gone – its structure can be revisited and set up at relatively short notice. Thanks to the work of the United Nations, many lessons learned about chemical weapons destruction in a war zone remains intact.
If other creative solutions are being sought then perhaps a joint Russian-NATO CWC Disarmament Task Force may offer a way forward. Since the early 1990s, Russia has persistently demanded some kind of ‘special’ institutional relationship with NATO and, despite some limited institution-building exercises and joint training exercises, these have failed to facilitate cooperation or mitigate conflict during recent crises in Kosovo, Georgia and, up until this point, in Syria as well. But there are precedents of operational cooperation between NATO and Russia, for example, the participation of the Russian Navy in NATO’s anti-terrorism patrols in the Mediterranean.
What do the two sides have to offer in terms of capabilities for a joint disarmament mission in Syria? The Alliance has a Czech-led Multinational Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Defence Battalion (CBRN), which forms part of the NATO Response Force (NRF). The Battalion is comprised of around 500 - 600 troops, with a readiness time for deployment of 5 - 20 days, depending on the decision of the North Atlantic Council (NAC). National components from over a dozen member states are in standby readiness at their respective permanent home bases, except during times of exercises and possible operations.  The Russian military has considerable experience in handling chemical munitions and leverage with the Assad government.
Notwithstanding all the potential difficulties, the prospective prizes could be mouth-watering: not only a tentative route map out of the mess in Syria but also a broader strategic, normative and political rapprochement between NATO and Russia and a re-invigorated United Nations.
Dr Andreas Persbo is the Executive Director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre ( and Dr Ian Davis is the Founding Director of NATO Watch (