Human catastrophe will go on as key issues of war are ignored
Agreement appears impressive but has too many sticking points to end the conflict, writes Peter Beaumont
THE agreement in Geneva between the US and Russia on disarming Syria's chemical stockpile looks impressive on paper. It sets out a firm timeframe for compliance: Syria must report what chemical stocks it holds within a week – far faster than the month President Bashar al-Assad requested. UN inspectors must be on the ground by November, and the stockpiles destroyed by the middle of next year.
Failure to comply, as US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed, would result in a reference to the UN security council under chapter 7 of the UN charter – "Action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression".
The reality, however, is that the devil will be in the detail. Even as the two men spoke it was clear, from comments by Barack Obama, and others, that the red lines on all sides remain where they were at the beginning of last week.
The US – in the comments of both Kerry and Obama – still holds up the "possibility" of the use of force if there is non-compliance from Syria, a step back from its military posture from a week ago, when it was more directly threatening. In any case, the definition of full compliance is likely to be contested over the coming months.
The real issue has been papered over – the fundamental difference between Moscow and Washington over how the conflict should be brought to an end. Instead, the deal confines itself to the narrowest issue – albeit a very serious one – of Syria's past use and future retention of chemical weapons. The wider war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives on both sides and displaced 6.6 million people, will continue with conventional weapons. And in the event of non-compliance, the same arguments seen over recent months will be revisited, because under chapter 7 there are different available options – not least articles 41 and 42.
Under the text of article 41: "The security council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the members of the United Nations to apply such measures.
"These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations."
If that fails, the security council can invoke article 42, authorising it to "take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.
"Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of members of the United Nations."
It is precisely this that remains a red line for Russia, not least under the new foreign policy unveiled by Putin earlier this year. More widely, it is not clear in any way that Russia has changed its objections, voiced at the first Geneva peace conference, to a political route forward that would see the departure of Assad – one of the sticking points.
In other words, for all the apparent progress, the can has been kicked down the road by the imposition of various conditions, many of which surround the key issues.
There may be no more chemical attacks – but for the foreseeable future the war, and the humanitarian catastrophe, will continue.