Beyond Assad’s Chemical Weapons

September 13, 2013     
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President Obama’s televised address this week set forth the path ahead for dealing with Syria. The US, Russia and others will try to hammer out a deal to turn the Syrian government’s chemical weapons over to international authorities for disassembly and destruction. But disagreement over deadlines and enforcement mechanisms, namely the threat of belligerent military intervention, might ultimately result in a final showdown at the Security Council where the Russians would feel compelled to veto once more. The US Congress would then get its vote, and, if current polls are any indicator, Obama would have to face the prospect of going it alone or doing nothing.

However, the president’s speech had another, more troubling effect: it solidified the separation of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that preceded the crossing of the infamous red line from those committed on August 21 via chemical weapons—all in service of more expedient foreign policy. It reinforced the implication that, regardless of how these events play out, the civil war in Syria will be allowed to continue unabated and with no end in sight.

I don’t need to spell out what that means. We all know the numbers and we all know the horrors: well over 100,000 men, women and children murdered; around 7 million displaced, including over 2.5 million refugees, half of which are children; families bombed in their homes; children incinerated on school playgrounds; torture and rape; cities reduced to rubble; and an entire region destabilized.

Of course if, at the outset of the conflict, the international community had actually honoured its obligations under the principle of the Responsibility to Protect—universally endorsed in 2005—perhaps much of the devastation could have been avoided. Now we face a highly complex scenario: the war is primarily being fought in dense urban areas, a wave of foreign extremists have infiltrated rebel ranks, both sides are culpable for all sorts of atrocities, and weapons of mass destruction have been used against civilians. Nevertheless, we cannot simply abandon the millions of Syrians that remain caught up in this nightmare because we think our national interests and the chemical weapons threat in particular are all that matter. Protecting them will require resources and a comprehensive effort to resolve the conflict. The question is: how?

One thing’s for sure: “targeted and limited” US military strikes aimed solely at neutralizing Assad’s chemical weapons capability are not the answer. First, it would be challenging to compile a comprehensive list of targets given recent reports that the regime has already begun moving weapons, equipment, and personnel. So even if the strikes were successful, confirmation would be difficult to achieve. Second, the action might inadvertently trigger the release of chemical agents, which would threaten civilian lives. And third, it would likely not change the military situation on the ground, particularly because the regime’s conventional arsenal would remain intact.

Now some might say, ‘Well then, if we do nothing, doesn’t that mean it’s open season for dictators to use weapons of mass destruction with impunity?’ I say: if we really want to deter the use of such weapons, we need to immediately bring in the International Criminal Court by way of a Security Council referral so that those who were responsible for the August 21 attack and other crimes can be prosecuted.

Another mistake would be outfitting the rebels with advanced weaponry. For, if we were to succeed in supporting one side and Assad were overthrown, what happens next? Would we have another Iraq or Somalia scenario where there’s a vacuum? In that environment, we might actually end up facilitating atrocities against Assad’s Alawite community and other minorities while creating a launching pad for terrorist attacks in the region and around the world. And, coming full circle, the arms we provide could then fuel conflict elsewhere, as was the case in Mali after weapons arrived from Libya, courtesy of NATO.

What the international community needs to do in Syria is push aggressively for a ceasefire, and, in fact, conditions for one might be riper than people think. Since June, media reports have suggested that the regime gained the upper hand following its victory in the town of Qusayr with help from an influx of Hezbollah fighters. However, the reality on the ground is more of a stalemate, with the rebels still holding large swaths of Syrian territory. As Der Spiegel reported recently, the regime is apparently worried that its defense lines will collapse due to the unauthorized withdrawal of loyal militias to their Alawite villages, declining morale, and other factors. So it seems that the regime resorted to chemical weapons not to win, but because it’s being backed into a corner. This might help unlock the door to ceasefire negotiations, which should be amenable to the Russians and the Chinese if we are to take them at their word.

However, in order to enforce a ceasefire and protect civilians, we must also push for the deployment of UN mandated separation forces under Chapter VII—including but not limited to NATO countries—as was the case in Bosnia in 1995. While this would indeed result in boots on the ground, these would not be overtly combative forces; rather, they would protect civilians and serve as a means of keeping the belligerents apart in order to give long-term peace-building a chance. After all, only a political settlement can return some semblance of normalcy to Syria.

With contributions from Jonah Kanter, project officer for human rights and genocide prevention in the office of Roméo Dallaire

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