The United States and Russia have agreed on what Syria is to do with its chemical weapons. But how that is to be implemented in practice remains to be seen.
The deal between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, presented at a joint press conference in Geneva on Saturday (14.09.2013), seems to be clear enough: Syria is to hand over a complete list of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the United Nations within a week.
Then, as soon as possible, international inspectors should be given access to the depots on the list, and by mid-November, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should be able to prepare for the weapons to be taken away. By the middle of 2014, all chemical weapons should have been transported across Syria's border - to be destroyed.
But Michael Brzoska of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) in Hamburg said he foresees problems. The analyst said, for instance, that the two foreign ministers failed to bring up the possibility of a ceasefire.
"Transporting chemical weapons is highly problematic anyway," he said - even an accident could a spillage. "If that transport then happens in the middle of a warzone, it can be very risky."
Chemical weapons expert Oliver Meier, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), also said transporting chemical weapons over long distances is always inadvisable. "Really, central depots should be built within the country," he said. "Transporting them abroad is highly risky."
Russia and the United States have estimated that Syria has around 1,000 tons of such weapons. Brzoska said the government in Damascus is perfectly capable of delivering the stockpile list within the one-week deadline - that is, if only the weapons themselves have to be declared, and not the chemicals that could be used to make the weapons - as is usually the case.
"But what if Syria declares: we have a depot that was overrun by the rebels and we don't know what happened to the chemical weapons there? What do we do then?" asked Brzoska.
Moreover, the opposition forces of the Free Syrian Army are rejecting the US-Russian initiative altogether - they still refuse to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. So it remains questionable how the cooperation will function, and how the safety of the inspectors will be guaranteed.
Possible flaws in the deal
The new diplomatic initiative was only possible because Syria sent the UN an application to join its chemical weapons convention, where it declared itself willing neither to use, produce, store, or pass on any chemical weapons.
But there are traps here too, said Brzoska. Assad had announced that he would only cooperate if the US ruled out a military strike. "If that condition is also in Syria's ratification documents, then it can't be allowed," he said. "The chemical weapons convention does not allow any limitations that go against the substance of the agreement."
The OPCW is to check in the coming days whether Syria's application is formally correct. It would be a setback for all the negotiations so far if it contains ineligible conditions. And in any case, if US President Barack Obama maintains his threat of military force, it remains to be seen whether Assad won't simply withdraw his declaration.
Politics against statutes
In point of fact, it should be the OPCW's task alone - commissioned by the United Nations - to oversee Syria's accession the chemical weapons convention. But Syria is a "special case," Meier said. "Chemical weapons have already been used, which already makes it very odd, he added. For that reason, it looks like the regular statutes for accession to the convention will be put out of action for political reasons.
"The Security Council can claim those rights," said Brzoska. "It can go above and beyond what the convention agrees. That's just how it is."
The French government has also emphasized that the OPCW should not be left to make the decision on its own - what is needed now is a binding Security Council resolution. Lavrov declared on Saturday that several details still need to be cleared up. For Brzoska, the first step has now been taken - now all that remains is to follow it up. "Now there has to be a peace conference with all parties, as soon as possible," he said. "Because the problem isn't solved just by destroying the chemical weapons."