Mathis Lohaus

Syria, Chemical Weapons & Civil War: Is A Bad Plan Better Than No Plan?


Yesterday, the United Nations published their report on the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria on August 21. You can read the conclusions above. Bottom line: Sarin has been used, but the report doesn’t explicitly blame either the Syrian regime or the rebels.

A few days earlier, on September 14, the Syrian government has officially requested to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This is a reaction to the U.S. threat to launch an attack, paired with new diplomatic efforts by Russia (and others?). The UN has received all necessary documents now and the accession will be effective in mid-October.

So instead of witnessing yet another U.S. military campaign to punish a dictator, now we’re all warm and fuzzy about international law? It’s almost as if they are following Richard Price’s guide in Foreign Affairs step-by-step. German critics of an intervention (please note the great series of posts at Sicherheitspolitik-Blog) should be happy, too.

In addition, it looks like the UN Security Council – after months of paralysis and a grand total of one single press release mentioning Syria in 2013 – might actually pass a resolution soon. So Russia and the U.S. seem to have agreed on … something. To me, it is not entirely clear what to expect – but it seems to be focused on taking CW out of the picture.

I certainly wouldn’t bet on anything pushing for regime change or explicitly threatening Assad. As Phil Arena has pointed out, neither the U.S. government not the Russian side has an appetite for intervention:

For the Obama administration, the primary goal now appears to be claiming to have upheld a global norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. For Putin and Assad, the primary goal has always been keeping Assad in power. If Assad ends up surrendering his chemical weapons while acquiring additional conventional ones from Russia, if the deal struck today holds, everyone will get what they want most.

So it seems that the Americans and the Russians want the CW out of Syria (albeit for different reasons), and Assad has agreed this is the way to go. Only one tiny question remains: How can it be done? With the weapons spread around the country, the civil war going on, and all logistical questions unanswered, the process seems extremely complicated and prone to deadly mistakes. In a similar vein, the Economist has called the plan “probably unworkable”, given that it would require many years, a lot of money, specially built facilities or secure transport routes, and many boots on the ground.

Even worse, the CW are not tactically important, and more than 99% of the casualties so far are the result of “conventional” weapons. For moral as well as practical reasons, the efforts to remove chemical weapons from the equation only make sense if they are connected with a very serious push to end the civil war. Here I agree with Michael Ignatieff’s point of view that a strategy of “asphyxiation” paired with diplomacy is most sensible:

A cease-fire, however, is impossible until all external interveners supporting the proxy war—including Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as Iran and Russia—begin to understand that neither Assad nor the rebel side is going to emerge victorious and that the longer the conflict goes on the more harm it does to civilians and to peace and stability in the whole region.

From stalemate comes a ray of hope, the hope that all the external sponsors of the conflict will begin to reduce weapons supplies to all sides. A strategy of asphyxiation could be followed by concerted pressure at the UN for a negotiated cease-fire. If no side can win it all, it is just conceivable that each may settle for what it already has. The result would be a divided Syria, with Assad in sovereign control, but with effective authority in the north and east in rebel and Kurdish hands.

Leaving Assad in place, in other words, may be the only way we can protect civilians from carnage without end. An uglier trade-off between peace and justice is hard to imagine, but continuing to demand Assad’s departure, in the absence of any effective means to force him out, has become an empty threat and an even emptier strategy.

Is the agreement on CW a first step towards a negotiated settlement of the dispute, as Vladimir Putin’s remarkable/bizarre NYT op-ed from Sept. 11 suggests and as the more liberal observers argue? (Note that Ignatieff speaks of “a ray of hope“.)

Or are the hawks right, and the United States did just lose a lot of credibility, were tricked by Putin, and are allowing Assad to start a new (conventional) offensive against the demoralized insurgents – while all other regional powers are happy with a never-ending mess in Syria?

Time will tell. The Russian-U.S. deal has helped to strengthen international law (on paper) and to avoid more American interventionism. But unless some pretty miraculous things happen at some negotiating table in Geneva or elsewhere, I have a feeling that it wasn’t the best outcome for the Syrian people.

PS. Please check out these links on Syria at the Duck of Minerva.


  1. Gerrit

    I don’t see that there is any viable alternative to the current diplomacy. Yes, all stakeholders should have invested more diplomatic capital much earlier on, and yes, making Assad’s resignation by the Western power two years ago was probably a mistake. Still, I don’t see what a military strike would have accomplished except taking out a few runways and rocket launchers. It would not have secured the chemical weapons and would not have tilted the balance of power in the civil war (if one actually intents to do that). It has often be said that there are no good options in Syria anymore, which is true, but I believe the current Geneva diplomacy revolving around the control of chemical weapons opens up at least a faint hope (sic) that this diplomatic game may spill over to the negotiation over the conflict itself. Now that it has become apparent that Russia does indeed have some constructive influence on the Syrian regime it will be harder for them to just duck away. I just hope everyone acknowledges the stakes and states like France and the US don’t stick to threats of military strikes (at least not in the negotiations over a SC resolution) that would make it impossible for Russia to accept.

    • Mathis Lohaus
      Mathis Lohaus

      Thanks Gerrit. I agree with your best case scenario. But acknowledging Assad’s and Russia’s moves as steps in the right direction means that “diplomatic capital” has been used to achieve a pretty useless (in the short term, at least) goal. It also gives them room and arguments to avoid making further concessions. That’s why I’m so unhappy.

      In reaction to a discussion I had yesterday: Of course it’s easy to just complain without naming an alternative. I admit that the current outcome is a pretty safe bet (“it won’t make the situation worse”) compared to any other route (strikes or a new ultimatum or arm-wrestling with third parties to force negotiations). Yet I still feel it’s been a suboptimal use of time and political capital.

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