Assad's Chemical Weapons Could Wind Up in Russia

One reason why Western officials are being so nice to Moscow: They want Russia to destroy Syria's deadly arsenal on its own soil.

The rockets were filled with military-grade nerve gas and labeled with Cyrillic lettering. They were fired from a weapon issued to the Syrian military and launched from areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad's forces.

A United Nations-organized probe, released Monday, Sept. 16, undermined claims by officials in Moscow that Syria's opposition, and not its regime, was responsible in late August for the world's worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years. But officials in Washington and allied capitals have not used their conclusions to denounce the Russians, because they are presently asking Russia for a big favor -- to destroy Syrian chemicals on its own soil.

Speaking in New York after the report was presented to the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, noted that "some countries" had not accepted the West's view of how the attack had unfolded -- and who was to blame. But neither she, nor the British and French ambassadors, assailed Moscow directly.

The reason -- spoken in private by U.S. and allied officials but only hinted at publicly -- is that Russia is virtually the only nation that can haul the immense Syrian chemical arsenal away and destroy it on its own territory, particularly within the ambitiously short time frame suggested by the recent U.S.-Russian agreement in Geneva. The agreement suggests the task be completed by the middle of 2014.

Russia's involvement is by no means certain. But it is a live -- and increasingly large -- possibility, the officials say.

"Removal may indeed turn out to be an important way to do this, if feasible, under [international] … supervision," a senior State Department official confirmed to reporters in Geneva on Sept. 14, on condition of anonymity. "Russia is certainly one option.… We have discussed it, but we have to do the technical work now to look at each of these."

In fact, Washington has been asking the Russians for months to do just that, according to U.S. and allied officials, but until now Moscow has shown little enthusiasm for the task. The officials, speaking on condition they not be named, said U.S. studies have shown that Russia has both the skills and industrial capacity to meet the challenges of destroying the Syrian arsenal, which has been estimated at between 1,000 and 1,300 tons of deadly sarin, mustard, and VX nerve gas -- equivalent to at least 239,000 gallons, some in vats, some in munitions, some in bunkers.

The United States, Britain, and France have had their eyes on a particular Russian chemical weapons demilitarization plant for some time as a safe destination for the Syrian arsenal. It's located at Shchuchye, 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow, where its employees have been destroying Russia's own stocks of VX and sarin since 2009. The plant was constructed over a decade with $1 billion in funding from the United States, plus additional cash from Canada, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Russia's own budget.

Western governments favor moving the Syrian chemicals out of the country aboard ships destined for Russia because they don't trust Assad's regime to destroy the arsenal in place -- a process that would take years. So they're eager to get the chemicals out of Syria quickly, perhaps after first neutralizing some of their components at their current sites. U.S. officials have said those storage sites may currently number around a dozen or so, although the total number of sites involved in the Syrian program -- including munitions and chemical factories -- has been pegged at around 45.

Russia's participation remains key because two other countries quietly approached by Washington this year as potential hosts for newly constructed demilitarization plants -- Turkey and Jordan -- have both expressed reservations, several officials said on condition they not be named.

Donald A. Mahley, a former Army officer who was the first U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) -- the group that oversees chemical demilitarization around the globe -- and who helped negotiate the planned destruction of Libya's chemical arsenal in 2004, said the Russian plant could probably eliminate the entire Syrian arsenal in six months to a year. He said that transporting the weapons there -- possibly using the Russian military-controlled port facilities at Tartus, in Syria -- should also be feasible, noting that in 1985, the United States successfully moved a more dangerous type of its own chemical armaments from storage bunkers in West Germany to a Pacific island destruction facility, without incident.

"Schemes to destroy the stuff in country are a lot more complicated than they look," Mahley said, citing his experience in Libya, where the former regime's arsenal has still not been destroyed, nearly a decade after that country committed to doing so. A plant in the Libyan desert, built by Italians, has periodically experienced mechanical troubles, and its operation was halted during the political tumult there.

U.S. and allied officials say that even before the chemicals are removed from their storage sites, some can be rendered useless as weapons by hydrolysis -- adding water and other chemicals -- and by burning the less toxic, alcohol-based component of sarin. "Each of these is far less technically complex than destroying the agent itself," a U.S. official told reporters in Geneva.

Mahley compared the task of transporting the resulting liquid to shipping nuclear waste, as opposed to nuclear warheads. "It would not be a vaporizing chemical" that could kill in minute quantities, he said, but "it would really make you unhappy if you got a gram splashed on your arm."

According to a description of the Russian plant by the Parsons Corporation, its U.S.-based designer, the facility "can process small- and medium-sized rocket and tube artillery, … small rocket and tube artillery munitions and large rocket and missile warheads." Automated machinery drills holes in filled shells, drains them, and neutralizes them by adding a chemical reagent. The waste is then mixed with asphalt and packed in drums for long-term storage.

The plant might have to undergo minor engineering modifications to handle the particular Russian shells. Under the Western proposal, Syria's arsenal would be destroyed there under OPCW inspection. U.S. officials say the mid-2014 deadline to complete the task is really more of a target, given the complexities of organizing the multinational effort. "We believe it is possible," one said. "I think the Russians are a little less ready to say it is possible."

While the West's preference -- namely, fast removal of the stocks to Russia -- is clear, according to various officials, Russia has yet to be fully convinced. So a joint study with Moscow is underway, a U.S. official said in Geneva, of the "cost, feasibility, safety, and, above all, speed" of that idea and some alternatives.

"We require further discussions within our government and between the two governments, then ultimately also with OPCW and other partners before getting to a final decision," the official said in Geneva. A colleague there said the "most likely" outcome is "some hybrid" of in-country and out-of-country destruction activities, alluding to neutralizing certain components prior to shipping them out.

Although Russia has been depicted in commentary as reaping rich public relations benefits from the Geneva agreement, the new U.N. report made Russia's past claims that the rebels were likely behind the August chemical attack look embarrassing. In making clear that deadly sarin liquid -- detected in blood, urine, and hair samples collected from victims, along with rocket fragments -- was delivered from the air, the report effectively ruled out any possibility that rebel forces had obtained and detonated the munitions on the ground.

By asserting that the chemical was used on "a relatively large scale" and deposited by dedicated, carefully made munitions, it also undermined any chance that the rebels somehow cobbled together their own versions of the weapons to perpetrate a hoax on the international community.

Western officials said, moreover, that rocket trajectories detailed in the report were consistent with previous intelligence reporting that the weapons were launched from areas controlled by military forces allied with the Syrian regime.

The report, in short, piled newly incriminating evidence atop claims by U.S. and allied Western officials in the past two weeks that Syrian forces had prepared for the attack by distributing gas masks shortly beforehand and -- more sensitively -- that Syrian military units had discussed the attack in advance in communications intercepted by foreign intelligence services. It represented an authoritative, independent judgment that this time, unlike in Iraq, U.S. and allied specialists had done their work properly.

"The information provided in that report that the sarin nerve agent was delivered on rockets" -- surface-to-surface rockets possessed only by the Assad regime -- "I think makes clear responsibility and reinforces the position that we've taken now for some time," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

When Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin insisted on the opportunity to question the report's principal author after hearing about it from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ake Sellstrom -- a former Swedish military scientist who had helped inspect weapons programs in Iraq before becoming the chief investigator in Syria -- delivered more uncomfortable news. He told Churkin and the other Security Council diplomats that tests had demonstrated the sarin was of much higher quality than Saddam Hussein ever produced, a circumstance that Western officials said rendered its covert production by the Syrian rebels impossible.

Churkin, in comments to reporters immediately after the presentation, pleaded for additional time to study the report.


Democracy Lab

The Dangers of Setting the Bar Too High

Turkey won't be able to achieve a healthy democracy unless it allows for a greater diversity of political representation.

As Turkey prepares for three sets of elections over the next two years, democracy in the country is in a fragile state. The Gezi Park protests that erupted earlier in the summer inadvertently exposed to the world the authoritarian vein running through the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once presided over a necessary reining in of military power and handing of additional social rights to the country's Kurdish population, turned with angry rhetoric on the young and peaceful demonstrators who gathered in Istanbul to oppose unilateral plans to redevelop one of the city's last green spaces. He tacitly endorsed the violence used by security forces to rein in the protests, accused a foreign conspiracy of instigating the movement, and even threatened to rally his own AKP party base into the streets to face off against the denizens of Gezi Park.

Despite that, Gezi Park was a hopeful moment for proponents of grassroots democracy activism in Istanbul and beyond. But the immediate outcome also underlined some disturbing wider realities. Even before the Gezi Park movement erupted, opponents of the government had been the targets of politically motivated prosecutions such as the Ergenekon case. The government's response to the "Kurdish question" has become incoherent. An unsustainable and non-transparent peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a policy of urging militants to leave the country (running the risk that they will become involved in conflicts in neighboring Iraq and Syria), and flagging concern for the rights of everyday Kurds are all causing considerable tensions. The country now has one of the highest numbers of imprisoned journalists in the world; in the 2013 Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, it ranked 154th out of 179 countries. Freedom House, a pro-democracy organization, now classifies Turkey as only "partly free."

Against this discouraging backdrop, Turks will head to the polls starting next spring. Local elections are scheduled for March 2014, presidential elections for June 2014, and parliamentary elections around May 2015. Erdogan has long hoped that the elections will end with another mandate for the AKP on all levels, which would then allow him to move forward with changes to the constitution that will strengthen the office of the Turkish president -- an office he would eventually like to hold. It appears that he has failed to accomplish this mission in the current parliament.

Regardless of what Erdogan thinks, however, the deepest structural problem with Turkey's political system is not the lack of a strong president. Rather, it is the lack of democracy in general and disenfranchisement caused by the high bar Turkish political parties must clear to be included in parliament. To be given seats, a party must win at least 10 percent of the vote. In neighboring Greece, the threshold is just 3 percent; in Germany and Poland, among many other European countries, it is 5 percent. (The idea behind such thresholds is to prevent the proliferation of small and potentially extremist parties, a problem that plagued Germany's Weimar Republic between the world wars.) Turkey's electoral hurdle is the highest of any liberal democracy in the world, thus preventing expression of the country's diversity in a corresponding party landscape. This high barrier to entry is one of many sticking points in Turkey's moribund accession process to the EU. A critical report by the Council of Europe in 2011 recommended that Turkey lower the threshold before the general elections that year.

This high bar was set in the early 1980s after Turkey emerged from military rule, at least partly as a way to keep Kurdish nationalists out of the political arena. It also aimed at bringing greater coherence to the fragile coalitions of the 1970s that led to periods of chaos and the subsequent military coup in 1980. But despite the hurdle, Turkish politics remained fragmented until 2002, the year the new AKP won a landslide election victory. In that election, it should be noted, a whopping 45 percent of the vote went unrepresented in parliament because it went to parties that did not meet the threshold. Over time, the 10 percent threshold has caused the disappearance of small center-right and center-left parties from the political landscape.

One aim of the high threshold was to push these small parties into coalitions with larger ones, but many have found it difficult to achieve common ground with either the AKP or its main opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP). As a result, a significant number of voters remain unrepresented at the parliamentary level. In 2002, the AKP won a new mandate with 62 percent of the seats in parliament -- but only 34 percent of the popular vote. The trend of disproportionate representation continued in the 2007 election, when the AKP again won 62 percent of the seats with only 46.6 percent of the vote, and 2011, when it won 59 percent of the seats with just under 50 percent of the vote. The same rule works in Turkey's 81 local districts, where seats are allocated after application of the 10 percent hurdle, meaning representation is disproportionate at the local level as well. These figures should make it obvious that large numbers of Turkish citizens do not feel that their own concerns receive adequate representation in the current party system.

The opposition -- led by the CHP, which has included a pledge to abolish the threshold in its party program -- is uniformly against keeping the threshold at 10 percent. The AKP too has long promised to lower the bar, but now Erdogan is dragging his feet. Recently, he offered his opinion that such a reform should no longer be on the agenda because the country's need for political stability trumps it. In truth, Erdogan knows that the 10 percent threshold leaves some conservative voters unwilling to vote for any of the existing parties while moving others to grudgingly cast pragmatic ballots for the AKP. Otherwise such voters might opt for small parties further to the right, such as the Felicity Party, Saadet Partisi, or the Democratic Party.

Now that the Gezi Park movement has exposed deep discontent that cuts to some extent across political lines, the prime minister certainly does not want to lose those votes. He needs them in order to retain a margin of victory large enough to push the transition to a presidential system through parliament -- a feat that would require him to garner at least 330 votes. (The prime minister is now subject to a self-imposed three-term limit that is set to end in 2015, but there is little doubt that he will lift the limit if he can't get the constitutional changes done within that time frame.)

This is a shame, because reforming the electoral threshold could be a step toward solving some of the thorniest problems facing Turkey's democracy. One of these, of course, involves the status of the Kurds. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political allies of the militant PKK, has in recent years evaded the threshold by having its members run as individuals, and then rejoin the BDP to serve as a bloc in parliament. However, because it uses this strategy, the BDP cannot access state funds provided to parties that run candidates on official slates. Lowering the threshold enough to get the BDP fully into parliament (the party won 6 percent of the vote in the most recent general election) would allow it to access these resources, and thus potentially weaken its dependence on the PKK, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States.

Viewed more broadly, reform of the electoral system has been long seen as an important component of Turkey's process of democratization. The system has made kingmakers out of the party leaders who are in charge of drawing up the closed lists of candidates for parliament. Voters are asked to cast their ballots for a party's full list, with no significant input on the individual candidates during the campaigns. Seats are then assigned to those on the list, starting from the top. And the members selected to be at the top of the list enter parliament already beholden to the party leaders who put them there. Opening up broader electoral opportunities to a wider spectrum of candidates could force politicians to listen to the vox populi -- and as Turkey's democracy deteriorates into a system of jailings without fair trial and violent suppression of protest, that clearly can't happen too soon. In this case, lowering the bar could raise Turkey's democratic discourse.

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