Publication: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy December 2013–January 2014
29 November 2013
There is ample reason to be sceptical about the chemical weapons (CW) destruction plan in Syria. The timetable is highly compressed, the environment hostile and the partner untrustworthy. The fact that it took 1,400 deaths on 21 August, including those of over 400 children, to shock the United States and its partners into action after 14 previous attacks attributed to Syrian government forces is further reason for wondering whether external actors will be able to agree to force President Bashar al-Assad if he cheats the inspectors.
For those who are focused mainly on Syrian regime change, developments have not been rosy. The rebels are losing ground and becoming more fractured. There is frustration that the United Nations-approved CW deal effectively serves to legitimise and perpetuate Assad’s regime. Critics ask: what is the point of focusing just on CW, when his forces have used conventional weapons to kill perhaps 100 times the number who have been killed by CW? Former US state department adviser Frederic Hof likened the CW destruction plan to excising the appendix of a patient with untreated cancer: the operation may be successful, but the patient is still suffering and dying.
One answer is that if the CW destruction deal works, the parties that made it happen will be encouraged also to work toward a peace accord aimed at stopping the bloodshed that so far has killed 100,000 people, created two million refugees and displaced five million citizens internally. In any case, the Syrian people and the region are better off now that Assad’s CW production equipment has been destroyed.
Achievements so far
In terms of the broader goal of enforcing a global norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction, developments in Syria since the beginning of September have gone extraordinarily well.
Firstly, pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Russia on 9 September stopped the talk of punitive military action against Assad by proposing that Syria put its CW under international control for destruction. US Secretary of State John Kerry gave Russia an opening with his unscripted reply to a reporter’s question about how, if at all, Syria could avert a strike. Kerry replied that Syria could hand over all its CW forthwith. That answer was seen as a classical gaffe – a gaffe being defined as a politically embarrassing truism. But Kerry’s remark turned out to be prescient. And it did not come totally out of the thin air. Russia and the United States reportedly had discussed the idea in advance.
In Iran, the common perception is that Iran initiated the plan to bring Syria into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). As the saying goes, success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. The more parties that claim paternity for the Syria CW destruction deal, the more parties that will be invested in ensuring it works.