The U.N.'s resolution on Syria: The good and the bad

On the one hand, it's a breakthrough that Russia and U.S. agreed on anything. On the other hand, where are the teeth?

Secretary of State John Kerry
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle))

Thursday was a busy day at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Secretary of State John Kerry held the highest-level U.S.-Iran meeting since the 1979 Iran-hostage crisis, and by evening, the five veto-wielding powers on the United Nations Security Council agreed on a resolution compelling Syria to hand over its stockpile of chemical weapons.

The resolution is not a done deal, exactly. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague, has to approve its own plan for inspecting and destroying Syria's chemical weapons before the U.N. Security Council votes on its resolution. But it's expected that the full Security Council will approve the Syria resolution as early as Friday.

It's kind of remarkable that the U.N. Security Council has agreed to anything on Syria, after years of stalemate, and the resolution is a pretty big readjustment for an Obama administration ready to lob missiles into Syria less than three weeks ago. But is it a good deal? Here's a look at what's in the U.N. resolution, and whom it benefits:

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1. Syria is legally bound to give up its chemical stockpiles

It's a minor miracle we are here at all. Starting with Kerry's off-the-cuff suggestion that Syria could avoid U.S. airstrikes by handing over all its chemical weapons, through dicey U.S.-Russian nuts-and-bolts negotiations in Geneva, the deal could have fallen apart at any time. It's not like this was the first time a solution was presented to the U.N. Security Council.

"Three times the United States has brought resolutions to the U.N. to condemn the Syrian regime over the brutality of the country's civil war," says Agence France-Presse. "And three times its efforts were felled by Moscow."

Now, Russia has signed onto an agreement that legally compels Syria to "not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to other states or nonstate actors."

2. There's no surefire enforcement mechanism

"This resolution makes clear there will be consequences for noncompliance," American U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said Thursday night. U.S. and British diplomats called the resolution "binding and enforceable." But there's some disagreement over how enforceable the resolution really is.

In a win for the U.S., any noncompliance from Syria will be remanded to the Security Council, which can "impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter." Chapter VII is the big gun in the U.N. arsenal, and can include authorizing military force and sanctions. In a win for Russia, any Chapter VII sanction will require another Security Council resolution, meaning another vote — which Russia can veto.

"Skeptics worry that the process may become drawn out as it was during the 1990s when the United Nations sought to inspect Saddam Hussein's arsenal in Iraq," says Michael R. Gordon at The New York Times. And Russia could drag its feet, buying precious time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Proponents of the measure say Russia may be cooperative because it shares the West's concern about maintaining zero tolerance for chemical weapons use," especially so close to its own borders.

3. The resolution sets a new precedent against chemical weapons use

One clause in the resolution that Western diplomats are touting "determines that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security." That provides a legal basis for enforcing the Syria agreement, but also sets a precedent for Security Council intervention whenever chemical weapons are used anywhere in the world.

That is the part that Power highlighted on Twitter:

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4. It doesn't end the Syria civil war

The framework agreed to by Russia and the U.S. envisions the destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons by the middle of 2014 — a goal made more plausible by the fact, according to The Washington Post, that most of Assad's stockpile "consists of 'unweaponized' liquid precursors that could be neutralized relatively quickly."

But the Security Council accord does nothing to stop non-chemical attacks in Syria, and, in fact, it probably aids Assad to the detriment of the U.S.-backed rebels.

"I think Assad feels that the chemical weapons actually saved his regime, rather than brought it down," one well-placed source in Damascus tells Reuters Samia Nakhoul. With the threat of international military intervention over, Assad can now, Nakhoul says, consolidate his hold on Damascus, Homs, and the Mediterranean coast, leaving the Islamist and U.S.-aligned militias to fight over the rest of the country.

All things considered, the Security Council resolution is probably a good thing for minimizing the world's supplies chemical weapons, a partial win for Russia and Assad, a mixed bag for the U.S. and its European allies, and a net loss for the forces battling Assad. A lot depends on how the resolution is carried out, and how committed Russia is to eliminating Syria's chemical weapons.

"Along with an historic high level meeting with Iran — a supporter of the Assad government — and some progress in Middle East talks, the Syria resolution represents diplomatic progress for the Obama administration, although time will tell if these initiatives work," says Pamela Falk at CBS News. "The next difficult step will be getting the parties in Syria to sit down to negotiate in Geneva."

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