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What You Need to Know About Syria Today

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It’s Day Two of U.S.-Russian Syria Talks in Geneva. By some accounts, they started on shaky ground. Russia and Syria insisted the U.S. give up its “policy of threats” – the threat of military action that the U.S. sees as necessary to secure and enforce a deal on Syria’s chemical weapons. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov started with a joint press conference that walked the line between stern and chummy.

“This is not a game. I said that to my friend Sergey,” Kerry remarked.

The BBC reports that Thursday’s meeting lasted about an hour and that talks could continue over the weekend. As a preemptive concession, Syria filed its paperwork to become a full member of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty banning the use of the deadly toxins.

Talk Shifts Toward Getting the Job Done, Disposing Chemical Weapons.

While experts warn of the long, challenging and expensive work involved in disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons, the U.S. and Russia are negotiating on where to start the process. In short, the plan is to move Syria’s chemical weapons into international control, then destroy them. The U.S. has said it welcomes Russia’s “significant” proposal on how to do that.

A version of that proposal leaked to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, which described the process in four steps: Syria joins the Chemical Weapons treaty, Syria declares its production and storage sites, Syria invites inspectors into the country, then the inspectors along with Syria decide how to get rid of the lethal material.

It sounds simple, but it won’t be easy. In fact, the plan itself is “probably unworkable” on the ground, according to the Economist.

“Even if the Syrians were to co-operate, though, keeping hundreds of inspectors safe would be incredibly taxing; attempts to do so would require tens of thousands of soldiers,” the magazine wrote. “So experts judge that a hard ceasefire is a necessity for any serious inspections. And it would have to last a long time.” The same report cites French intelligence estimates saying Syria’s stockpile includes tens of tonnes of VX and hundreds of tons of sarin and mustard gas.

The Deal Has its Doubters. U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, who also chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he’s skeptical diplomacy can succeed in calming the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons.    

“I’m skeptical of whether Putin is willing to submit this whole effort to a Security Council resolution and what enforcement mechanism is there going to be,” he told USA Today. “But I think the world and our own nation needs to see whether or not this is real.” Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that President Obama faces humiliation if the negotiations drag on, without meeting his demands.

The strongest note of caution came from rebel commander General Salim Idris, who called Putin a “terrorist” and said Assad was out to “win some time,” deceiving the U.S. and the world. On Thursday he told CNN Assad is moving his chemical weapons into Lebanon and Iraq to preserve some of the arsenal. Iraq denied the claim, while Israeli officials said they did not see signs that it was happening. The Wall Street Journal reported that for months, an elite unit of Assad’s military has moved chemical weapons to up to 50 sites, making it harder for the West to track them.

Meanwhile, Inside Syria, Things Fall Apart. Syrian government warplanes bombed a hospital serving rebel-held areasnorth of Damascus, activists said, pointing to a YouTube video of the purported aftermath. An alleged massacre in an Alawite village killed 22 people, including women and children. Syria’s Alawites share the same sect and form the main power base of the Assad regime; Reuters links the attack to a revenge campaign by al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups, exacting “an eye for an eye” after the August 21 chemical weapons attack on eastern Ghouta.

For not the first time, Syrian fire spilled onto the Golan Heights, which is Israeli-held territory. No injuries were reported. In contrast, clashes between Islamists and Kurds in Syria’s oil-producing northeast region reportedly killed dozens of people, in what Reuters called “a struggle for territory and resources.” Syrian Kurds make up roughly 10% of the country’s population; since the start of the war they’ve exercised increasing autonomy. There are rivalries across Kurdish political factions; Robert Olson, a scholar who studies the Kurds, calls it “the other war in Syria,” one that makes an overall peace less likely.

Suggested Reads from Our Editorial Team: 

New York Times: For Turkey’s Leader, Syria’s War Worsen Problems at Home

AFP: Iran Boosted by US Holding Off on Syria Strike

Reuters: Syria’s Government Struggles with Food Supplies

Council on Foreign Relations: Russia’s Syria Initiative: Beware Strangers Bearing Gifts

The Daily Beast: My Dinner with Al Qaeda

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