Hannah Stuart: The initiative risks distracting people from the ongoing civil war in Syria

Comment: Syrians won’t benefit from this unworkable chemical weapons fudge

Comment: Syrians won’t benefit from this unworkable chemical weapons fudge

The Russian proposal for Syria to hand over chemical weapons to the international community might deter US-led military intervention in the Middle East, but it is almost certainly unworkable in Syria's current security situation.

A stalling tactic appealing to world leaders' desire not to concede ground, it is also unlikely to help the Syrian people in the long-term.

Under the Russian proposal Syria would transfer its chemical weapons to the international community for destruction and become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.

US strikes are currently on hold. Barack Obama, the reluctant interventionist hampered by an unwilling public and a divided Congress, has described the Russian initiative as a "possible breakthrough". The US congressional resolution authorising military force is being amended to include a timetable on chemical weapons transfer and Democrat politicians are pushing to grant Syrian president Bashar al-Assad 45 days to sign up to the CWC and relinquish his stockpiles. At the same time, America's most stalwart ally, France, has drafted a tough Chapter VII UN resolution formalising the Russian suggestion and allowing for military and non-military action to restore peace if Syria breaches the conditions.

Aside from putting the brakes on military intervention, there are significant problems with the Russian proposal in terms of both access and trust. The current security situation would prevent UN weapons inspectors from entering parts of Syria. And there is limited intelligence as to the scope and location of Assad's chemical weapons programme. Given that the regime has yet to officially declare the existence of its chemical weapons stockpiles, it is unlikely they would relinquish all of their capability.

The proposal, however, must be pursued – and must also be seen to be pursued – if international law is to have any legitimacy.

Under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention all possible diplomatic and economic routes must be exhausted before military intervention is entertained. Moreover, there is the small but possible chance that greater cooperation within the international community to achieve this limited goal may precipitate greater political negotiation. Those who think unconditional Russian support for Assad is wavering should remember that the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons is a strategic goal for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who fears transfer to the al-Qaida affiliates currently holding territory less than 500 miles from the Chechen capital Grozny, where he is fighting his own Islamist insurgency.

While Putin and Assad both want to avoid military intervention, the initiative also risks distracting the international community from the continuing civil war in Syria, or from punishing the regime for its use of chemical weapons – itself an abuse of international customary norms. While the August 21st attack put prospective intervention uppermost on the table, the US congressional resolution also authorised the US to seek to "change the momentum of the battlefield" in order to facilitate Assad leaving power.

Even if Syria complied with the Russian initiative, the regime has enough conventional and biological weapons to continue their assault on the Syrian people.

Contrary to popular belief, the Syrian opposition is a broad coalition, which features not only the al-Qaida affiliates and militant Salafists, but also genuine moderates who share the aim of a pluralistic and democratic Syria. The Russian initiative appears to be designed to prevent the major international players losing face; only meaningful military assistance to the moderate opposition, however, will tilt the balance against Assad and bring about a close to the Syrian crisis.

Hannah Stuart is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society

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