How Chemical Weapons in Syria Shaped the Nature of the Conflict

Photo credits: awsaat.net
Photo credits: awsaat.net

It is an undeniable fact that the ongoing situation in Syria has created many implications on the wider region of the East Mediterranean and the Middle East, highlighting that nothing should be taken for granted as far as peace and security is concerned.

One of the most important elements that characterizes this crisis is the crucial role of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and the possibility of the use of said weapons by the Syrian regime. The United States and other countries have assessed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against opposition forces in the country, while the UN’s investigative team report confirmed the large-scale use of the “sarin” nerve agent against civilians in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21. The use of chemical weapons became a reality and the repercussions turned into a nightmare for both sides.

However, over the past months this issue has entered a new era, after the acceptance from the part of the Syrian authority to set its stockpiles under international control, in order to prevent a combined military engagement by the US and France. The contribution of Russian diplomacy could be considered as the vital factor for this compromise. The questions that followed this progress are numerous and mainly connected to the role of the USA, the stance of Russia since the beginning of the war, the geopolitical games, the absence of a strong EU, the role of personalities such as Obama and Putin and, of course, the reaction of the international community to this issue.

To begin with the USA, Obama’s role is very crucial as far as the USA’s role as the main representative of the international community is concerned. First of all, the imposition of “red lines’’ from President Obama created the status that could offer him and his allies the legal framework for the taken in Syria. In other words the background for a potential intervention was set when he declared the red lines in Syria. A red line as it relates to the US, was “the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups” . The use of chemical weapons in Syria was a game-changer, while Obama underlined the possibility that those chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands and get disseminated in ways that could even threaten U.S. national security or, even more likely, the US’ major ally Israel.
Secondly and most importantly, Obama stated that he had resisted calls for military action, because “we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” This initiative was directly connected with the lack of congressional support; President Obama would probably ask for a congressional vote, in order to give his administration the time to pursue a new diplomatic initiative. Faced at a dead-end, Obama transformed the ‘’US red lines’’ to red lines of the international community. In the meantime the UN Security Council meetings had been producing no results, because of the Russian and Chinese disapproval of ‘humanitarian intervention”.
As noted above, Russia’s vital role during the Syrian crisis was stimulated by vetoing all the UNSC resolutions on the Syrian issue, but at the same time Russia’s role in Syria was also what brought the solution and made Assad accept a compromise. Moscow has been firmly opposing any international intervention to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, arguing that the conflict must be resolved through negotiations and that Assad must be included in any transitional arrangement leading to a new government.
Beside the fact that Russia and Syria have always been allies, since the Syrian liberation, there are

also crucial Russian economic and geostrategic interests in Syria and the region in general. First of all, Syrian contracts with the Russian defense industry were a major factor in supporting Syria, as its economic interests there were tremendous. Russia also had important strategic liaisons with Syria, due to its naval facilities in Tartus.
As far as the chronicle of the investigations on th

e use of chemical weapons is concerned, the Syrian government initially called for a U.N. investigation of what Damascus said was a use of chemical weapons by the opposition forces on March 19th 2013. The U.N. and Syria ultimately agreed on procedures for the inspections in late July 2013 and the U.N. inspectors arrived in Syria on August 18th and left on August 31st. Public intelligence assessments, issued by the United Kingdom and the United States on August 29th and August 30th 2013, respectively, stated that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on August 21st against opposition forces at Damascus’s outskirts. Although no official UN investigation team had reached to a conclusion about who was that used the chemicals, USA had been strongly recommending that it was the Assad’s regime responsibility.

Russia and the United States were working hard in order to find the common ground needed for a negotiated solution to the crisis. A compromise was a necessity. The US Secretary of State John F. Kerry said at his opening remarks before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “In the nearly 100 years since this global commitment against chemical weapons was made, only two tyrants have dared to cross the world’s brightest line. Bashar al-Assad has now become the third.” He made this “equivalence” between facts in order to highlight that this topic is not only a red-line for politics but also a red-line for humanity while condemnig the gravity to what was happening in Syria. Kerry’s rhetoric focused on the use of chemical weapons and the meaning of a military strike. On the other side, the Head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergei Lavrov stated that a military intervention in Syria would be a “most brazen violation of international legislation” if held without the UN’s backing, while he clarified that “the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through political reconciliation.” Russia’s goal was to find a solution through negotiations in order to bring Assad and the opposition to the same table.

After many delibarations, a solution proposed on September 14, 2013 by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov presenting a “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” and the OPCW Executive Council adopted a decision that requires Syria to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. Moreover, the Syrian government acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention on September 14, 2013 (entered into force on October 14, 2013.) This convention requires its member states to eliminate all of their chemical weapon stocks, munitions, precursor chemicals, and related production and storage facilities. Syria is also a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has a Comprehensive Nuclear Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Thus, Russia and the USA (after many scenarios that accompanied the U.S. response) reached an agreement which has as a goal the removal or the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by the middle of 2014. This agreement also set the stage for one of the most challenging undertakings in the history of arms control. Assad said he would begin handing over details of Syria’s stockpile by sending the necessary documents to the UN, in line with a Russian proposal designed to avert a punitive US bombing campaign.

Assad’s move to accept this proposal was a very prudent one. As he said “The chemical weapons, which have lost their deterrent value over the past few years, were meant to be used only after Israel used its nuclear weapons…..Today, the price has changed and we have agreed to give up our chemical weapons to remove the threat of the US attacking us.” It could be supported that Syria possessed WMDs in order to be prepared for a potential attack of Israel. We should not forget that the Middle East is one of the most liquid areas, where tensions and conflicts among the countries and non-state actors are quite common occurrences. Syria had to act within a framework of security dilemmas in the region; it was a necessity that in effect became its condemnation.

Syria has produced, stored, and weaponized chemical agents, but it remains dependent on foreign suppliers for chemical precursors. The regime of President Bashar al Assad possessed stocks of nerve (sarin, VX) and blister (mustard gas) agents, possibly weaponized into bombs, shells, and missiles. The government also had associate production facilities. Syria had one of the most advanced chemical warfare (CW) capabilities in the Middle East. The elimination of Syria’s WMDs started at the beginning of last October. Kerry stated that the United States and Russia “have agreed … on a basic assessment of the numbers and types and locations” of Syria’s chemical weapons. The proposal specifies the categories of chemical weapons-related items that are to be destroyed: production equipment; mixing and filling equipment; filled and unfilled weapons and delivery systems; unweaponized chemical agents and precursor chemicals; and material and equipment related to the research and development of chemical weapons. Some chemical agents and precursor chemicals could be destroyed outside of Syria.

Syria has met the first chemical weapons destruction deadline, according to the OPCW, as it has destroyed all its declared chemical weapons mixing, filling and production facilities, and all of the chemical weapons at inspected sites have been placed under seal by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Moreover, the prospect of Syria’s chemical weapons being dismantled in Albania triggered protests in the capital of the country, Tirana, exposing a rare dent in the NATO member’s loyalty to the United States. Nationalism was more than evident in this case. Albanians declared that this is not their war, as Albania belongs to Albanians and not to the international community. No decision has been made yet. In the meantime, the Obama administration is offering to destroy some of Syria’s deadliest chemical weapons in international waters aboard a nearly 700-foot, U.S. government-owned ship. The plan, still subject to final approval, would involve destroying the weapons aboard the MV Cape Ray in the Mediterranean Sea, with U.S. Navy warships patrolling nearby.

Of course, if the U.S. initiative for the destruction of chemical weapons becomes a reality, we would have achieved a great step forward on this issue. The U.S. is once again showing its international role. However this action could be interpreted with terms of national interests and allied interests (Israel and its security).

On the other hand, China is acquiring tremendous power in the East Pacific, changing the power correlations in the region. The U.S’ main chessboard is no longer the Middle East but rather this region. It is obvious that the US is seeking a solution in order to focus on the “Chinese issue”. Moreover, Russia should “second” this initiative because it serves its own interests, too. It is likely that Russia, exploiting the US’ disengagement from the region can become the main player there.

The Syrian civil war is not over yet, but important steps have been made. Assad has acquired a “legal basis“ for further negotiations. This will not, however, change his role in the massacre in Syria. Iran, after the historical Nuclear Deal, seems to change mentalities, but not ideologies. It will probably remain a strong player in the region, if Assad stays on power, too. Turkey’s role in the crisis is significant, but at the same time it does not have anything to offer to the international community. The actions taken by Turkey are clearly a matter of national sovereignty.

The vision of a solution could become a reality. To date, the program has achieved the main goals and has met the deadlines. Both Russia and the US have highlighted that cooperation is possible if it is a positive sum game. Russia’s role on the solution was very calm, but dynamic at the same time while the USA showed once again that without its contribution nothing can become a reality. With China’s “absence” the US seems to be the only international player right now. Now, we will have to wait about the conflict resolution in Syria.

Fotios Straviravdis.

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