Vermont Public Radio comment for Thursday September 19th, 2013


INTRO: There remains much to be done to make the recent Russian-American agreement to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons a reality. But this morning, commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore explains why it should ultimately be successful.


TEXT: I wouldn’t minimize the difficulties in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. But as someone who covered the U.S.-Soviet strategic arms limitation negotiations for many years, let me offer some perspective.

Negotiations for the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty had been going on for five years when in 1977 the American and Russian delegations granted me and an ABC News film crew access to a week of actual negotiations in Geneva. That week’s plenary session and the daily side negotiations were devoted mostly to one sentence in the proposed treaty which began “These missiles, among others….” At issue was whether the Latin equivalent, “inter alia” would be preferable to “among others” and where in the sentence to place it. What took a week could have been decided in a minute, but in those days, the speed of arms talks reflected the state of American-Russian relations at that moment. The Cold War is over but that is still essentially true.


There are serious problems related to disarming the Syrians of their chemical weapons. But it’s evident that both Moscow and Washington have decided that this is something that serves each sides’ interests. And I think Syrian President Assad will do what he is told by his benefactor, Russian President Putin.


Once a final resolution can be agreed to in the United Nations Security Council- and that could still take some time- the securing and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by United Nations Inspectors should proceed as scheduled.


Much has been made of the difficulties they will face, because a civil war is waging. On that I would make two points. The United Nations weapons inspectors are gutsy people and not easily scared. And - we know that the chemical weapons are clearly in areas which are under the direct control of Assad and his military. In other words, they are not in places likely to come under direct fire from the rebels. As to the timing and method of destruction those are complex technical questions, and it may take more than six months but this shouldn’t be a deal breaker.


There will inevitably be snags and delays. There will also probably be uncertainties about whether every last ounce of saran or mustard gas has been destroyed. But if this deal works as I think it can – it needs to be measured, not in terms of perfection, but compared to the alternatives.


The United States and the rest of the world could have decided to do nothing in the wake of the Assad’s criminal use of poison gas against his own civilians, setting a dangerous precedent.


America could have launched air strikes against Syria’s chemical capabilities, which would have reduced but not entirely eliminated them. I supported this action even if there was some risk of widening Syria’s civil war. However, the proposed diplomatic solution is a far better option– although I remain convinced it would never have emerged as a possibility, without the threat of force.    


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