The newfound Russia-U.S. cooperation regarding Syria’s chemical weapons will likely provide a foundation for wider cooperation in other areas.

Syrians living in Bulgaria protest against a chemical weapons attack in Damascus. Photo: Reuters

For a while, last month’s G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, looked to be a bust. The G20 has considerable potential since its members represent 90 percent of the world’s economy, but their deliberations have failed to yield major concrete achievements in such areas as the shadow banking system, corporate tax shopping, and the lowering of persistent barriers to trade and investment.

The "St. Petersburg Action Plan," a brief account of the agreements made at the G20 summit, simply replicated many of the domestic reforms that the attending governments had already decided to adopt before the summit. As usual, many proposals contained in the summit action plan are vague, lacking clearly defined goals, or depend on legislative action in the given countries. For example, the summit stressed a "sustainable recovery" from the global financial crisis.

Many member states therefore pledged to increase domestic investment in education and infrastructure, enhance regulations on large financial institutions, and introduce reforms to make tax codes more transparent. Since many states are failing in these objectives, the summit attendees avoided mutual self-criticism. However, the Russian briefings did fault the U.S. Congress for not yet ratifying the agreement to redistribute voting rights within the IMF — one of the many failings of the current Congress that are now again on display in Washington.

Although the G20 is not supposed to have a traditional military security agenda, the U.S. plans for a military strike against Syria ensured that the Syrian issue would dominate the summit deliberations. The G20 countries remained sharply divided on the issue, with not only China and Russia but also Brazil, India, and Indonesia refusing to sign a statement that even hinted at some kind of concrete response to the Syrian government’s August 21 use of chemical weapons, which reportedly killed more than 1,400 people.

In contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama had insisted on some kind of response to the atrocity, which in the United States is widely seen to have been caused by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and was prepared to employ force unilaterally to this end.

Before the summit, President Barack Obama cancelled his planned one-on-one meeting with President Vladimir Putin ostensibly because the Russian government announced that it would grant security contractor Edward Snowden temporary asylum. In St. Petersburg, the two leaders were expected to discuss their national differences over Syria.

The result of the discussions behind the scenes

It now appears that, behind the scenes, the participants were laying the foundations for launching a new Syrian diplomatic initiative. A few days after the summit, the Russian government called on the Syrian government to place all its chemical weapons under international control pending their destruction. Secretary of State John Kerry had earlier said that only by eliminating all its weapons would the Syrian government be able to avert a strike, but Kerry expressed skepticism that Damascus would do so.

Ironically, the fact that until now the United States has explicitly ruled out using military force against Syria might have emboldened Russia’s resistance since Moscow could plausibly interpret Syria as being of less importance to Washington than Libya or Iran. A credible U.S. threat to intervene in Syria could have induced the Russian government to agree to sanctions or other pressure on the Syrian government measures to avert the U.S. military operation. But U.S. vital interests are not at stake in Syria, which made the use of U.S. military forces in the conflict implausible before the mass chemical weapons attack.

If realized, the subsequent elimination plan agreed to by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at Geneva would achieve the stated objectives of the planned U.S. military strike — to degrade the regime’s chemical weapons and deter their further use by Syria or other states. It would also keep the chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists while avoiding the ecological risks of striking “hot sites” or undermining the regime’s ability to control the weapons by destroying their command and control.

With some exaggeration for dramatic impact, Putin himself wrote in a New York Times op-ed article that a U.S. military strike against Syria “will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

In all likelihood, the Assad regime would have sustained the strike and then declared victory, while the Obama Administration would feel more comfortable about the credibility of its “Red Lines” – but one never knows. Most importantly, the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, as envisaged by the plan hatched at what future historians may call the Syria Summit, will occur without the 75,000 U.S. troops that the Pentagon said they would need to seize, secure, and guard the weapons and facilities. However, one suspects that high figure was offered mainly to discourage the United States from attempting such an endeavor.

Nonetheless, implementation remains tricky. The Syrian government has, with surprising alacrity, made its required declarations of its chemical weapons storage and production facilities. The Organization of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has even agreed to waive certain restrictions (such as the prohibition of moving chemical weapons internationally, which would prevent their possible relocation to Russia for safekeeping and destruction). With OPCW technical advisers, the Syrian government should be able to quickly destroy the production facilities and place the stocks under international supervision.

But the safety of the inspectors remains questionable, as Syria’s civil war shows no signs of ending and some groups have incentives to harm them or at least disrupt the process. The division of authority between the OPCW, the U.N. Security Council, and the other parties involved in the demilitarization effort remains unhelpfully unclear. And actually eliminating the weapons will prove very demanding, though if most of the weapons remain in separate (binary) form, this will prove easier. 

Even if they remain in Syria, the two components of the binary weapons should be kept far apart. Destroying Syria’s chemicals weapons is essential, but placing them under international supervision and control also an important measure than can be achieved much more rapidly.

The newfound Russia-U.S. cooperation regarding Syria’s chemical weapons will perhaps provide a foundation for wider cooperation in other areas. Their differences over Syria will persist, but their collaboration does provide an impetus for renewing their Cooperative Threat Reduction efforts in other countries as well. The two countries still have greater WMD-related resources and expertise than any others. The new projects will help compensate for the disruptions caused by their renewing a truncated Nunn-Lugar framework agreement earlier this year.