The former U.N. weapons inspector who led the inspections team that surveyed Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion has said that recent developments with the Syrian conflict could turn out to be a “win-win situation.” In an interview on Tuesday with TIME, David Kay said that if Syria could be persuaded to surrender its chemical arsenal, it would not only avoid the possibilities of wider war in the region but it would also bring Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under some form of control.
Kay, a senior fellow at the Arlington-based Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, believes that the recent diplomatic efforts in Syria, replacing talk of a military operation, will work in the U.S.’s favor. “I think [Syrian President Bashar] Assad will initially try to comply with the demands,” he says. “Otherwise it would be pretty easy for the U.S. to reinvigorate, perhaps with stronger domestic support and broader international support – you could make the case that they had their chance and violated it.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Michael Elleman, a senior research fellow at the U.K.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees that the process could be a step in the right direction. “It’s a way of avoiding an escalation of the conflict by external powers,” he said. “It would strengthen the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
And while it seems unlikely that President Assad would happily relinquish control of any weaponry he may or may not hold, the initial signs are positive. “In the Middle East, agreements are never forever,” Kay says. “But that’s why this is so interesting – if you look at what the Russians are proposing and what the Syrian foreign minister this morning accepted, it says the ‘dismantlement’ of those weapons.” Dismantling chemical weapons in Syria – where there is believed to be large stocks of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agents – would be a highly complex process that experts say would take years to complete.
And there would be other difficulties along the way. Firstly, a resolution needs to be passed by the U.N. Security Council that authorizes the U.N. Secretary General to create a weapons inspectorate to ensure that all Syrian chemical weapons are brought under international control. And Kay, who led the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2003, is under no illusions that such a mission would be easy. “The inspectors would be going into a hostile area – the government is at war with the insurgents,” he says. “A lot of these chemical weapons are stored in contested areas and as an inspector it’s awfully hard to determine who’s shooting at you. I wouldn’t want to write their insurance policy – they’re at great risk.”
Elleman also has concerns about the process. “The other questions are how long is it going to take, will it involve just the weapons stockpile or the whole production program, and who would maintain security while this process is under way?” he said to the Guardian.
Kay remains cautiously hopeful about the current developments. “I think everyone will say this is better than the alternative of military action,” he says. “And it has some real possibilities of getting rid of chemical weapons.”