Former UN arms inspector Rolf Ekéus tells DW why it’s unlikely that the expected UN report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria will include a smoking gun and why the world must act to get rid of Assad’s arsenal.
Rolf Ekéus was executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1991 and 1997 where he was responsible for work to eliminate the Iraqi infrastructure for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. From 1997 to 2000 he served as Sweden’s ambassador to the United States. Ekéus is also chairman emeritus of the board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
DW: You were head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) with the mission to inspect and destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Do you see parallels between your Iraq experience and the current situation in Syria?
Rolf Ekéus: There are clear parallels. In this case Syria has accepted to go along I guess with the Russian initiative that the weapons should be identified and eliminated in one way or the other. Either taken out of the country or destroyed in Syria.
It is not surprising because there are certain parallels between Iraq and Syria, even if the religious balance is different. But the majority of Sunni in Syria and the majority of Shia in Iraq are or were oppressed by dictators using a secular approach to balance the religions with the help of the Socialist Baath party system. So there are clear parallels in the structures. Syria is of course different because there we have a rebellion.
On Monday, the UN inspector team headed by your fellow Swede Ake Sellström is expected to deliver its report about the use of chemical weapons on August 21 to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Do you expect the report to contain a smoking gun?
No, it’s more difficult there. His task was not to investigate the big thing. His task was to see if there had been use and what kind of use of chemical weapons had taken place. He should not look for the actor in this case. But it’s a very clever team and they may give us enough information to also decide whether it was the administration in Syria which did it which is probable of course. But you can never know clearly.
If the report does indeed not present clear proof of who was behind the chemical attack aren’t we in the same divided position between the US and Russia we were in before?
In a sense we are. But the situation has changed with this initiative by Russia and it was also I think sympathetically received by President Obama at least. I think it is a very good idea to eliminate and take away all the chemical weapons. It’s the smart thing to do, no matter who was guilty of the use and as I said most of us are relatively sure it was the Syrian administration.
A core issue in the haggling over the UN resolution is the threat of military force in case Syria does not fulfill its obligations. Are you in favor or against including the phrase “by all means necessary” which is UN talk for military measures in the resolution?
As the former UN chief of disarming Iraq I can’t formally be that, because this operation of disarming Iraq was under the guidance of the Security Council, it was directly under the Security Council’s control. If Iraq refused entry to certain facilities the Security Council could threaten serious consequences in order to give the Council flexibility. They didn’t say we will kill you, but they said you will be subject to serious consequences if you block the inspectors. I think that is a formula which is rational.
But this case is different. Saddam didn’t ask to get rid of his chemical weapons. He was forced because of the cease-fire resolution which was implemented after Kuwait was liberated. In this case, Syrian authorities together with the Russians said ‘We would like to get rid of the weapons,’ so I don’t think one should threaten, but the phrase ‘serious consequences,’ I think the Security Council should accept this.
It should adopt a resolution that is a binding resolution, Chapter 7, not presidential statements which the Russians have proposed. It should say: Syria’s chemical weapons should be eliminated, removed and destroyed. And if Syria suddenly starts to go back on its own proposal that would have serious consequences.
Assuming the international community would agree on a UN resolution to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, how could such a mission be implemented in the midst of a civil war?
That is of course first a question to the rebels. But I think they would be happy to get rid of the chemical weapons. There is a definitely a high security risk because of elements in the rebellion who are Muslim fundamentalists and al Qaeda types. But should you allow al Qaeda to dictate what should be done to get rid of chemical weapons? To hide behind al Qaeda I think is really cowardly and no great statesman should do it. It would be very, very odd and I am afraid there is a risk that the West will hide behind al Qaeda and say we can’t do anything because these guys are dangerous. Let them keep the chemical weapons there. That’s so absurd. Of course it’s extremely dangerous, but there are methods and possibilities to carry this mission out with great success.
Given the Assad regime’s conduct, isn’t it realistic to assume that they would or perhaps already have transferred or hidden some of their chemical arsenal at other sites or outside the country?
Of course. But where should Syria hide it. Maybe in Yemen? Certainly this is a problem and that should be pursued by the UN inspectors. That’s what they did in Iraq. That’s why we should have a competent, high-quality inspection and destruction operation in Syria.
President Obama’s stance on Syria over the last two years of the civil war has puzzled many international observers. How would you grade his Syria policy?
I would grade it very high. I think he is very smart, smarter than most of us and that’s why all of us don’t understand what’s going on. He has been so aware of the duality of the problem. He certainly is no friend of Assad. He thinks it would be wonderful for the Syrian people to get rid of that gang to give the Sunni majority the chance to rule the country. He is also aware however that the Syrian administration is part of a minority of Alawite Muslims. He is aware that the Christians, Druze and even Kurds depend on the protection against more fundamentalist elements which are built into the Muslim majority.
And Obama is aware of the consequences for Lebanon and he is aware of the situation of Hezbollah which is of course an existential threat to Israel. He is aware of Hezbollah’s arrangements with Iran.
What is your best hope and worst fear for the Syrian conflict?
My best hope is a step-by-step approach with the idea to get rid of the chemical weapons. It would create a political sense of momentum to get the parties to negotiations in Geneva as soon as possible. It is good that [John] Kerry and [Sergey] Lavrov are meeting now and are taking steps in that direction. I think that is what every one in the region wishes, even Israel supports such a peaceful solution and that would obviously also be in the interest of the US and Europe.
My worst fear is what the American conservative strategist Edward Luttwak said: Let them continue to kill each other. If one side is winning it would be a tragedy for the other side. If Assad wins the Sunni would be suffering, if the Sunni win, the Alewites, Christians and Druze will suffer. It’s much better that they continue to kill each other, so that will be the balance until they are exhausted.
I think that is what is awaiting us. There are only two alternatives. One is the Geneva talks and the other the continuation of the awful and terrible suffering.