At a roundtable discussion this past weekend in the Aegean town where Herodotus was born, history-making events on the scale of those he recorded provoked sharp debate. At its annual roundtable in Bodrum, the Istanbul-based Edam Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies had invited me to co-lead a discussion on Syria. While I addressed the regional and global implications of the chemical weapons (CW) destruction plan, Al Arabiya senior roving correspondent Rima Maktabi spoke about the destruction of the country and the ongoing tragedy engulfing the Syrian people.
Looking at it from a non-proliferation perspective, I noted the extraordinarily positive developments of the past month: Putin pulled a rabbit out of his hat in getting Bashar al-Assad to agree to give up his chemical weapons, the United States and Russia quickly hammered out an inspection and elimination plan, the Security Council unanimously endorsed it, Assad’s initial declaration was more thorough than expected, and destruction began a week ago with the full cooperation of the Syrian government.
There are huge hurdles ahead, given the tightly compressed timetable, the hostile environment and the untrustworthy partner. Like Saddam Hussein, Assad can be expected to cheat the inspectors, and like Muammar Gadhafi, he may well try to keep some CW stocks hidden for a rainy day. But so far, the destruction process is off to a very good start.
By happy coincidence, I was addressing the CW topic the day after Turkish President Recep Erdogan temporarily fell to second place among world-famous Turkish personalities. The top honour now is accorded to Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Having toiled in relative obscurity to make the use and possession of chemical weapons an international taboo, the 14-year-old organisation deserved the recognition. But as with US president Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize five years ago, selection of the OPCW for the honour was more in anticipation of good deeds to come. By 30 June 2014, Syria’s chemical weapons are to be no more.
At the Bodrum roundtable, the Saturday morning debate centred on what’s in it for Syria. One anguished participant decried the Nobel selection for the way it moved the focus off the plight of the Syrian people. The CW destruction plan and Obama’s failure to intervene sent a message, one Turkish participant said, that it is ok for tyrants to kill their own people, as long as they don’t do so with sarin. I disagreed, but I acknowledged that Assad’s forces have used conventional weapons to kill maybe 100 times the number that was slaughtered with chemical weapons.
Channeling the plaintive questions she hears from some Syrians, Maktabi said some Syrians and Arabs in the region think Obama shouldn’t have set red lines he didn’t intend to enforce, and shouldn’t have raised expectations for support of rebels that would not be honoured.
Those are tough questions, but I pushed back. Training rebels created options, and setting the red line against CW use was the first step of what became a successful employment of coercive diplomacy. If it works – and granted, there are many reasons to be sceptical – the benefits will be far-reaching. Moscow, Tehran and Damascus will not be the only beneficiaries. Obama will get a much-needed foreign-policy victory and humanity will be better off as chemical weapons gradually cease to exist. I delve into this more in an article in the next edition of Survival. Giving diplomacy a chance over the CW issue may also enhance prospects for the diplomacy aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.
On Thursday 24 October, Daniel Feakes, Strategy and Policy Adviser at the OPCW, will discuss Syria, effective multilateralism and the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize at Arundel House, London.