As regular readers of this blog will know, I have recently been advocating two things in connection with Syria:
First, to address the issue of chemical weapons separately from the wider conflict.
That's because it IS a separate issue. Although the chemical crisis has arisen out of the wider conflict, maintaining the international ban is a matter of global importance. Whatever people may think about the principle of intervening in another country's internal struggle, the use of banned weapons – wherever it happens – requires a strong international response.
Secondly, to explore diplomatic/political ways of dealing with chemical weapons in Syria.
On the first of these two points, things have got worse rather than better. In the US especially, the level of confusion – among the public and in the media – is now extraordinary. Much of the debate relates to internal politicking around Obama's "leadership" (or supposed lack of) rather than the matter in hand. As for chemical weapons, they have become little more than a peg for discussing more familiar but only marginally related topics like jihadists and Iran, as well as for expressions of isolationist sentiment.
On the second point, though, there are signs of progress. When I first suggested placing Syria's chemical stockpile in the hands of the UN, it was greeted with a mixture of silence and scepticism. But now it seems the idea may have legs after all.
Earlier today, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, suggested the Assad regime could avoid being attacked if it handed over its entire stock of chemical weapons. In the form delivered by Kerry it sounded like an ultimatum – hand them over within a week, or else – and Kerry added that he did not expect Assad to comply.
But then something very interesting happened. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, chipped in, unexpectedly agreed with Kerry about handing over the weapons (though without the threatening tone) and even went a bit further. He said:
"We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only [to] agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
"We have passed our offer to Walid al-Muallem [the Syrian foreign minister] and hope to receive a fast and positive answer."
The best way the US can respond to this is not to add further demands, such as an admission of guilt from Assad, but to say to the Russians: "That's an interesting idea. Let's see what can be done."
There are two steps involved in dealing with the use of banned weapons:
1. Preventing any further use.
2. Holding accountable whoever was responsible.
As far as achieving these objectives is concerned, airstrikes are not a precise tool. They could hold the regime accountable to some extent by destroying some of its assets – in other words, punishment. Airstrikes would not directly prevent further use of chemical weapons, however. Bombing toxic stockpiles themselves could be dangerous, so the aim would be partly to reduce the military's ability to use them but mainly to serve as a deterrent – a message that further use of such weapons would result in increasingly severe airstrikes.
Apart from saving lives, the diplomatic route could prove more effective. Persuading Assad to hand over his chemicals to the UN, together with agreeing to inspections, etc, would – if done properly – ensure there could be no further use of these weapons. It would not address the issue of accountability, but that is less urgent and could be set aside till later.
In theory, it ought to be possible to secure Russian co-operation in a diplomatic initiative since President Putin has already said he regards use of chemical weapons as a crime. (As a side-note, Iran – another important ally of Assad – also takes a dim view of chemical weapons, having been on the receiving end during the Iran-Iraq war.)
It's necessary to recognise, though, that on other issues relating to the Syrian conflict Russia has been thoroughly obstructive, as Samantha Power, the US ambassador at the UN, explained recently. If the Americans want to test Russia's willingness to co-operate on chemical weapons, therefore, they will have to treat it as a self-contained issue in any discussions.
Another potential obstacle is that in the absence of any startling new evidence Russia will probably stick to its insistence that the Assad regime was not responsible for the attacks on August 21. If the Americans persist in trying to change the Russian view on point, talks will inevitably founder.
But, surprising as it may seem, disagreements over culpability need not necessarily be a problem. There are perfectly good arguments for urging Assad to give up his chemical weapons without blaming him for the events of August 21.
One is that surrendering the chemicals will protect him from further accusations (either true of false) of their use. Another is that it will prevent any of the weapons being captured – and even used – by rebel fighters.
The biggest unknown quantity in this, of course, is how Assad himself will react to the proposal. Currently, he seems to be neither confirming nor denying that he has chemical weapons (which is what Israel also does in connection with its nuclear weapons). But there's no real doubt that he has both actual weapons and a research programme which was originally developed as the "poor man's defence" against Israel's nuclear capability.
Assad might remain defiant, claiming that the weapons (if he admits to their existence at all) are purely for national defence. Or he could offer to give them up on condition that Israel does the same with its nuclear weapons.
That's the kind of bravado that made Saddam Hussein a hero among his supporters but ultimately led to his downfall. If Assad has any sense, though, he will weigh up the costs and benefits of keeping his weapons versus giving them up. If he's prepared to swallow his pride (and values his relationship with Russia) it shouldn't be a difficult choice to make.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 9 September 2013