Anyone who has a keen eye for international affairs would not have missed last Saturday’s groundbreaking agreement between Russia and the United States regarding the international community’s next move for the Syrian Crisis. At the time of writing, we are celebrating the dire 30th month of civil war in one of the oldest countries, home to some of the greatest testimonies of world heritage that unites us all. On September 14th, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached a deal on how to tackle the most recent development in the conflict: the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime against both the civilian population and insurgents.
In exchange for a bilateral call for the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, the US would retract its unpopular threat for military action. The deal provides for a rapid accounting of the Assad regime’s chemical arsenal (numbers, types, and location), enabling UN inspectors to start planning the removal and destruction of said weapons by mid-2014. However, Assad will have a very short window of time to provide this list, with failure to comply resulting in a referral with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that could end with an authorised multilateral use of force.
To its credit, this agreement does look on the surface like a ground-breaking deal: bringing together the United States and Russia, who have so far failed to see eye-to-eye on how to precipitate an end to the bloody conflict in Syria. However, there are deep imbalances at its very core that will inevitably turn it into a perfect illustration of Western powerlessness in the face of this increasingly intractable conflict. Ultimately, this will only result in the inevitable stroking of our, the benevolent powers’, good, well meaning R2P (responsibility to protect) conscience.
Firstly, the Geneva Agreement, as the New York Times calls it, cannot be implemented successfully on the very belligerent and un-cooperative Assad regime without proper leverage. While admittedly the United Nations Security Council has been mentioned in the agreement as the provider of said leverage (i.e. drafting a resolution authorising use of force should Assad fail to comply), one must not forget the shortcomings of this institution, and the resulting diplomatic battle, should the UNSC be invoked. Indeed, regardless of how long and tedious the process to draft such a resolution is (and how problematic this is in such a crisis), the composition of the council will prevent it from acting in the way the Geneva Agreement expects it to. While the United States, France, and Britain are surely not expected to vote against such a measure, the same cannot be said about Russia and China. Even in light of such a unique agreement with the United States, Foreign Minister Lavrov still reminded the world that Russia was opposed to such an option, demonstrating there is still room for a Russian veto on the matter. Furthermore, Secretary Kerry, having clearly not learned from the past, did not hesitate to mention that although it is currently indefinitely stalled, the United States is still not excluding unilateral use of force in Syria should the Security Council members not agree on a more multilateral option. Even though an effort is being made to show there is cooperation amongst two major actors on the international stage, with stakes in the Syrian conflict, the agreement remains an empty shell as both parties insist on a diametrically opposed resolution in the face of diplomatic failure.
Furthermore, intelligence was gathered showing that Assad disseminated his chemical weapon stockpiles over 50 different sites and perhaps even over to his Alawite allies scattered at the border with Lebanon, and as far as the Palestinian Territories. This already invalidates whatever listing Assad’s regime will provide, should they provide it at all. Even if they did, looking back to the cases of Iraq and Libya decades ago, disposal of such stocks take a long time, and the timeline of 2014 seems thus quite an ambitious one to follow to do a proper job. Another ‘we’d dig a pit, put in diesel fuel, and blow the stuff up’, like in Iraq (words of a UN official quoted by the New York Times) cannot be advocated. As the New York Times reports, such a fast-paced method of disarming and destroying large stocks will lead to another case of forgotten stock, possibly falling into the wrong hands. After all, the fighting factions are numerous in Syria, and the line between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ here is oftentimes difficult to draw.
While this attempt does not provide the international community with the proper tools to put an end to this chemical-laden bloodbath, it deters our attention from the bigger picture in itself. Chemical weapons are not the main issue in Syria. On the other hand, a multi-factional, multi-faceted quagmire currently on its 30th month, and showing no sign of running out of steam, is. Whatever results come as a consequence of the Geneva agreement, the balance of power will still remain favourable to Assad’s side. Chemical weapons or not, his arsenal is still large enough to continue to wreak havoc amongst civilian population. On top of this, the factional divide on the rebel side will still be as complex, with infighting between factions who are themselves fighting the same common enemy, the regime.
So what is next for Syria, and what can we do about it? For this analyst, it seems it’s back to the drawing board. It’s time to remember our history. Successful strategies of the past should not overshadow the unsuccessful ones. Now is a good time to update our literature on counterinsurgency and conflict resolution and not let ourselves be distracted from the bigger picture: a Syrian civil war with no end in sight.