Syrian chemical weapons: reasons for hope

When I first began advocating a diplomatic solution to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis (here, here, here, and here), it seemed like rather a hopeless quest. But now, nine days after my first blog post on the subject, there's an agreement in place. Syria has swiftly accepted the Chemical Weapons Convention – without any public quibbling – and the Americans and Russians have worked out a framework for dismantling the weapons along with their production facilities.

The Russian-American agreement (full text here) provides for dismantling under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but with reinforcement from the UN Security Council. This is essential because, as I pointed out last week, the OPCW mechanism is too weak on its own in a situation like this. 

Although many people are still sceptical, there's a good chance that it will work – or at least succeed in two key objectives: (1) preventing further attacks in Syria and (2) maintaining the international red line against use of chemical weapons.

The main reason for optimism is that all three parties – Russia, the US and the Assad regime – have an interest in making it work.

Russia, of course, is basking in diplomatic kudos (undeserved in the light of its previous behaviour regarding Syria), but that will only continue so long as the agreement holds.

In the US, Obama is largely off the hook. He has avoided an extremely controversial military intervention so long as there is reasonable progress in dismantling Syria's chemical weapons. He can't withdraw the military threat entirely, though, because that provides an incentive for Syria to comply, and well as for the Russians to assist with Syria's compliance.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime can avoid airstrikes and direct American intervention in the conflict so long as it cooperates with the disarmament process – and all at very little cost.

Naturally there's a lot of wariness about whether Assad really will cooperate. But, once again, it's a mistake to view this too much through the prism of Iraq. Saddam Hussein's cat-and-mouse game with the weapons inspectors was motivated more by a sense of injured pride than an actual need to conceal anything. The Americans mis-read his intentions – and we all know where that led. Assad, if he knows what's good for him, will have learned from Saddam's mistake.

I have argued before that the chemical weapons issue in Syria should be kept separate, as far as possible, from questions about resolving the wider conflict there. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to ask whether the Russian-American agreement on chemical weapons can improve the prospects for a generalised political solution.

On that front, little has changed so far. The main obstacle to a settlement was – and still is – Russia's support for Assad. While Russia has shown itself more amenable on the chemical weapons issue, this is entirely consistent with its overall strategy. 

Apart from its support for Assad, Russia's main goal has been to prevent direct western intervention in the conflict. It had previously blocked any moves towards intervention through the Security Council but, once Obama threatened intervention outside the Security Council, it was eager to negotiate. That in itself does not indicate a shift in Russia's position. In essence, it is a case of using different methods to achieve the same goal of avoiding direct western intervention.

As before, there is little hope for a political solution until Russia shifts position and accepts that Assad (along with his most important henchmen) cannot be part of the solution. 

That, in turn, raises the question of how long Russia can maintain its support for Assad and what might cause it to change.

Russia's wholesale adoption of Assad's propaganda line on the August 21 attacks – that rebel fighters were responsible – looks increasingly ridiculous, and it's hard to imagine that Russia's own intelligence services really believe it. The UN inspectors' report, due to be released tomorrow, will probably weaken its stance further but may still not be enough to cause a shift.

At the same time, though, Russia does seem genuinely concerned about jihadist influence among the rebel fighters. At one level, that can be an argument for supporting Assad in his battle against them. Equally, though, it can be an argument for withdrawing support and bringing the conflict to a swift conclusion – since the longer it continues the more entrenched the jihadists are likely to become.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 15 September 2013