Whose ‘Boots On the Ground’ Will Protect Weapons Inspectors in Syria?

By Patrick Goodenough | September 16, 2013 | 4:39 AM EDT

Personnel in protective gear go through their paces at NATO'€™s multinational Chemical, Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defence Battalion in Liberec, Czech Republic. (Photo: NATO)

(CNSNews.com) – When international scientific and technical personnel enter Syria to inspect, remove and destroy the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles, they will need significant security support, raising questions about whether the Obama administration will keep its pledge to have no U.S. military deployed inside Syria.

No one is publicly saying who will provide the protection needed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) personnel entering a war zone, yet. But the wording of the agreement negotiated between the U.S. and Russia in recent days acknowledges the need for such security – and indicates that the two countries will share a responsibility in arranging it.

“The Russian Federation and the United States will work together closely, including with the OPCW, the U.N. and Syrian parties to arrange for the security of the monitoring and destruction mission, noting the primary responsibility of the Syrian government in this regard,” it says.

Under the agreement’s tight schedule, the Assad regime has one week to declare all its chemical weapons, before personnel from the technical secretariat of the OPCW – which oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention – begin initial inspections. These are due to be completed by November, with mid-2004 the target date for the arsenal’s removal and elimination.

When laying out and defending the now-suspended plan for a military response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons in an August 21 attack, administration officials from the president down repeatedly have insisted that there will be no U.S. military “boots on the ground.”

A senior State Department official disclosed during a background briefing Saturday that U.S. Central Command had prepared a “quick paper” before the team led by Secretary of State John Kerry went to Geneva to negotiate with the Russians, covering “options for security” for when OPCW personnel go into Syria to implement the agreement.

The official described the Central Command proposals as “broad parameters, nothing very complex – just to give us some idea of the dimensions of the security challenge to secure a site.”

The U.S. believes there are at least 45 locations in the country associated with the chemical weapons programs, all in areas controlled by the regime rather than the rebels fighting to overthrow it.

“Even in a regime-controlled area, we would need considerable security,” the State Department official said. “OPCW would need considerable security for protection of the site, if nothing else. Security is still a daunting challenge, even given regime control.”

The agreement calls on countries “with relevant capacities” to contribute towards the “supplementary resources” needed for the OPCW to implement the agreement A second State Department official involved in the background briefing said some have already offered to do so.

“The U.S. and Russia committed in this document to help find the resources with friends around the world,” the official noted. “A number of countries have already communicated to us their readiness to contribute to this effort.”

“We have had previous discussions with a number of our allies and friends in Europe and elsewhere, particularly those who have technical capabilities in their military for dealing with [chemical weapons].”

NATO in 2003 established a specialized multinational chemical warfare unit in Bohemia in the Czech Republic. But asked how the Russians would view possible NATO involvement in a Syria operation, the official stated, “it would not be a NATO operation.”

Two days before the negotiations in Geneva ended in a deal on Saturday, Pentagon press secretary George Little responded vaguely when asked whether U.S. troops would help carry out the agreement, according to a Military.com report.

“I'm not going to speculate on who may or may not be participating in a process that may or may not take place,” it quoted him as saying.

As CNSNews.com reported recently, the Congressional Research Service in a report last month noted that the Pentagon has estimated it would take “over 75,000 troops” to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, “in a non-permissive environment.”

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday, Kerry responded to a question about the security needed for the process by saying that as the conflict has continued, the regime had moved its chemical weapons stocks into areas under its control.

“Therefore if they’re going to make good on this [agreement] they ought to be able to make good on the protection of the process itself,” he said, but added that “these are the modalities that are all going to have to be worked out, negotiated.”

During the same hearing, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, in responding to a question from Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), appeared open at least to the notion of a U.S. role in the process.

“As far as the removal of chemical weapons [goes], you know our assumption would be in this new proposal, it would be a permissive environment in the sense that the regime would be willing to do that, so we wouldn’t have to fundamentally fight our way in to seize control of chemical weapons.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow