U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Elena Chernenko and Evgenii Khvostik

NEW YORK — At long last, the members of the United Nations Security Council have reached an agreement on a Syria resolution. The West has agreed to give up on including language that Russia had furiously opposed — that is, to automatically sanction the use of force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he fails to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles.

Without the UN resolution’s adoption, it was impossible for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to start implementing the Russian-American plan to establish international control over Syria’s chemical arsenal. For two weeks, the members of the security council could not agree on the text of the resolution, because the West persistently argued that including the automatic penalty if Assad failed to comply would be the only way to ensure that he kept his word.

Russia and China were both against this automatic use of force — instead insisting that each instance of alleged non-compliance would first have to be reviewed by the security council before any action was taken. Russia’s argument was that Assad’s opponents are hoping for an international intervention, and their interests would not be served by success of the OPCW mission. “If the regime really gives all of its chemical arsenal up, then it will be impossible to accuse the regime of organizing chemical attacks against civilians, which would mean that the reason for intervention would disappear,” a Russian diplomatic source explained. “That is not in the opposition’s best interest.”

If the resolution’s text had included an automatic penalty, then any departure from the OPCW plan — whether a chemical attack or the leak of chemical weapons outside of the country — would give free rein to the countries who want to punish Assad. Moscow was afraid that the opposition would do something to provoke that scenario. President Vladimir Putin recently said that he considered the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus “provocation from Syrian opposition fighters.”

Conflicting “proof”

As a result of that attack, between 300 (according to French data) and 1,500 (according to U.S. data) people died. The United States and its allies say that there is “irrefutable proof” that Assad’s regime committed the attacks. One of the most important pieces of evidence against the Syrian regime is a telephone conversation between the Syrian military recorded by American intelligence. In the recording, a representative of the Syrian Defense Ministry demands an explanation for the chemical attack from a military unit commander.

At the same time, the Syrian government has been trying to convince the world that the opposition is behind the chemical attacks. A diplomatic source in Geneva gave us a copy of some of the documents that Damascus has sent to international organizations to support that assertion. The documents were also the result of a recorded telephone call, but it was the Syrian intelligence service that made the recording. The document says it was recorded on Aug. 13, and the phone numbers of both parties are indicated.

The name of the caller isn’t shown in the conversation, but the man he talks to is named Abu Abdo. The gist of the conversation is the following: The caller offers to sell Abu Abdo (who seems to be located in opposition-controlled areas) 30 82-millimeter caliber mortar shells.

Abdo asks, “Are they Russian or homemade?” The seller answers, “Russian, originals, in boxes.” He asks for $310 per shell ($300 for the shell, $10 for his services). Abdo asks if the seller is sure he would be able to deliver the goods, adding, “Someone offered us some gas shells recently, but then they took off.” According to Abdo, the deal was supposed to take place near the Lebanese border town of Arsal. He doesn’t specify what the name of the gas is but says that he needs “that kind of shell.” Abdo asks, “Are your shells already loaded with gas?” The seller promises to verify.

The source who provided the documents was not able to answer whether the deal discussed during the recorded call was actually finalized. It’s hard to evaluate the reliability of the transcript, but a Kommersant correspondent was able to reach someone at the number that Abu Abdo supposably spoke from in the transcript. The man who answered spoke the dialect of Arabic common in Lebanon and Syria and answered to the name Abu Abdo. He offered to send answers to our questions by email, but his answers never arrived. In the French and German press, we were also able to find references to a field commander of Lebanese origin called Abu Abdo. One report referred to him as a “Lebanese weapons dealer.”

It’s worth noting that the West has recently ceased claiming that the Syrian opposition doesn’t have chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry said as much for the first time on Sept. 14, after meeting in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The OPCW plan is still considered a U.S.-Russian plan, which does not prevent the two sides from interpreting many of the plan’s key components differently — not least of which is the applicability of the UN’s chapter 7, which allows for military and non-military actions to promote peace and security. Relations between the two countries no doubt remain frosty. Regardless, it seems like the two sides have finally reached a compromise.

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