Chemical weapons: a diplomatic way out?

France will not decide on action against Syria until the findings of UN weapons inspectors are known, President Hollande told a news conference today. 

Hollande seems to be backtracking on his earlier support for US military action and his statement has far-reaching implications:

1. With the inspectors not expected to report for another two to three weeks, it means President Obama will probably have to postpone any airstrikes too; if he goes ahead before then he will do so without any significant international allies – making him look even more isolated than he does now.

2. If this makes any military action unlikely for several weeks, there’s no real need for the US Congress to make a decision next week. The vote could be postponed, thus saving Obama from what at present looks like inevitable defeat.

That, in turn, would create a window to explore some diplomatic possibilities.

I have argued many times before that diplomacy is not going to achieve a political solution to the Syrian conflict as a whole until the situation changes on the ground and Assad agrees to go. But I have also argued that use of chemical weapons – wherever it happens – is a different issue that should be dealt with separately from the general conflict in Syria.

As the statement issued by a group of G20 countries put it earlier today:

“The international norm against the use of chemical weapons is longstanding and universal. The use of chemical weapons anywhere diminishes the security of people everywhere. Left unchallenged, it increases the risk of further use and proliferation of these weapons.”

The use of chemical weapons in Syria requires an effective international response. Russia’s support for Assad has so far prevented any serious action by the Security Council with regard to the Syrian conflict more generally but that doesn’t necessarily mean Russian would be quite so intransigent over the issue of chemical weapons. Russian is a party to the Convention on Chemical Weapons and President Putin, in his TV interview on Tuesday, said "We firmly believe that the use of weapons of mass destruction is a crime."

This ought to provide something to work with on the diplomatic front, or at least to explore. The key would be persuading Putin that chemical weapons in Syria can be addressed without making it a pretext for something else.

The world has made considerable progress towards eliminating chemical weapons and the aim should be not to let that slip by allowing their use to become normalised now. There are two steps towards achieving that in Syria:

1. Preventing any further use.

2. Holding accountable whoever was responsible.

Of the two, preventing further attacks is plainly the most urgent. Accountability is important too, but if a way can be found to prevent further use, accountability could be set aside for a later date.

If the immediate issue can be narrowed down to one of prevention, and the UN inspectors produce irrefutable evidence that banned weapons have been used, Putin might – just might – be open to persuasion.

So, what might be done? One idea, from US Senator Joe Manchin, is to give Assad 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin securing and ridding the country of its weapons stockpiles. 

Couched in those terms – basically as an ultimatum – it’s unlikely to work. Russian wouldn’t support it and Assad would probably respond by calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a quid pro quo. – which isn’t going to happen, desirable though it might be.

Nevertheless, there’s the germ of an idea here. Another option would be for the UN to call on Assad to hand over his chemical weapons for safe-keeping outside Syria, with inspections to ensure there was no further production.

It’s certainly worth testing whether Russia would agree to that. Assad would still be reluctant, since he maintains that his chemical weapons are a national defence against Israel’s nuclear weapons. But with Russia's cooperation he might just be persuadable that clinging on to his stockpile is more trouble than it's worth.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 6 September, 2013