In 2013, the ‘failure of leadership and absence of grand strategy’ prevented longer-term solutions to security issues in international affairs, according to Dr John Chipman, Chief Executive and Director-General of the IISS.

Speaking on Thursday at the launch of Strategic Survey 2013, Chipman observed that ‘the abiding impression of international affairs in 2013 was of a constant flow of events that political leaders, governments, international organisations, opinion-formers and people of all kinds were doing their best simply to manage. It was a year of living tactically.’

He added that ‘the diffusion of power and the privatisation of so much activity of strategic importance have limited the ability of governments to shape agendas and to respond to challenges effectively.’

This was especially true in the case of Syria, which, unsurprisingly, dominated much of the discussion following Chipman’s press statement. At the core of the debate was the 21 August chemical-weapons (CW) attack in Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus.

Chipman pointed out that, Syria aside, there had been no use of CW since 1988; the prohibition on the use of such weapons became law with the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997.

The panel dismissed the possibility that the attack could have been carried out by rebel groups, as Russia has suggested, because – while there are reports that they have managed to source some CW – they lacked the means to deliver them effectively, particularly the necessary rockets and artillery, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme. (The UN report confirming that CW had been used, released yesterday, did not assign blame for the attack but the US, the UK and France said the rockets used were known to be part of the Syrian regime’s arsenal.)

‘The main reports on rebels getting hold of CW was [Islamist rebel group] Jabhat al-Nusrah,’ said Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security at IISS-Middle East, ‘but it turned out to be antifreeze, not sarin.’

Hokayem suggested that the 21 August attack had been a ‘miscalculation’ for the regime, in terms of the number of casualties:

‘Previous uses were small-scale, deniable’, he said, with observers agonising over the veracity of attack claims. Taking CW attacks ‘to the next level’ came with a cost for President Bashar al-Assad, he explained, who is now faced with the recognition of his CW capability and having to give them up.

The recent Russian proposal to disarm Syria of its CW, instead of a military strike, also received much attention. Assad confirmed later that day that he would agree to give up his CW capability, but emphasised this was the result of ‘Russian diplomatic efforts’ rather than the threat of a US strike.

They warned, however, that implementing the Russian proposal would be a difficult and lengthy process:  

‘There has never been a situation where the international community has attempted to secure, seize and destroy weapons of mass destruction during an ongoing conflict,’ said Fitzpatrick.

‘The best case was in Iraq and even there it took many months to assemble teams and years to destroy the arsenal. In Libya, it has been many years and still not all the mustard gas has been destroyed.’

He said that those with a stake in the region – including Russia and Iran – must take responsibility.

When asked what his predictions were for the situation on the ground in Syria over the next weeks and months, Hokayem said the chance of a political solution had shrunk. The ‘zero-sum nature’ of the conflict has been reaffirmed by the CW attack, he explained, and rebel factions would lash out where they could, while Assad would try to ‘capitalise on the sense of rejection and abandonment’ among rebels.

‘I think that in the coming months, in fact, the fighting is going to increase massively and we will probably see even more massacres just because there is a sense right now that there is no outside help coming,’ said Hokayem.

Hokayem also said that the 21 August attack revealed that Russia did not have as much control over Assad as it claimed, but Fitzpatrick said that Russia nonetheless ‘deserved credit’ for getting Syria to admit to its possession of CW, and to get Syria to re-affirm the importance to the CWC. Even if the Russian proposal fails, he asserted, Russia should ‘continue to pursue that objective’ and, at the very least, Russia and Iran could help ‘whittle down’ the stockpiles, which would be an advancement of where we are today.

The Syrian conflict was also discussed in the context of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and the prospects for thawing relations with the West. Fitzpatrick said Syria is ‘immensely more complicated’ for Iran than for the West. Rouhani, who would not be the one to control policy on Syria, does not have the leverage to use Syria to engage more with the West. He described Syria as Iran’s ‘Vietnam’, draining Iran’s economic resources and manpower and creating divisions in Iranian society.

The best-case scenario, he said, was for Iran to be viewed as a stakeholder in the Syrian issue, which would enable Rouhani to speak with the United States about issues important to Iran.

Egypt was also discussed at length. Steven Simon, Executive Director of IISS–US and Corresponding Director of IISS–Middle East, said the US administration had avoided the word ‘coup’ when Egypt’s military deposed Muhammad Morsi on 3 July and set up an interim government, because this would have ‘triggered certain legislative provisions that would have limited the administration’s flexibility in dealing with the political crisis as it unfolded'.

A perceived ‘Western news blackout’ regarding increasing violence in Sinai was also discussed. Security in Sinai has deteriorated in the past two years, with weapons from Libya flowing into the area and criminal and, increasingly, jihadi gangs operating there. Hokayem explained that the area – the most neglected part of Egypt – receives less attention partly because it is so inaccessible. The Egyptian army is now trying to assert itself in Sinai with ‘massive military operations’, said Hokayem, but force alone would not solve the problem. Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, Nigel Inkster, commented that Sinai had been added to the IISS Armed Conflict Database.

Watch the launch.

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