Syria: Between East and West

Originally published on October 4, 2013, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)

As the Syrian civil war continues, so do debates over which measures – diplomatic, military, or both – the international community or its single actors should take. The war erupted in the spring of 2011, and it’s been taking its human toll since then. Its casualties have already surpassed 100,000, over six million people have been displaced (including approx. one million children), and the sarin gas attack couldn’t help but touch anyone watching its gruesome images on the media. How is the international community reacting to all this and can anything change in the near future? 

Probably the firmest response to the situation in Syria is the attempt by the US to convince its citizens as well as the international community that a ‘limited military response’ is imperative, that it’s necessary to punish Bashar al-Assad for its gas attack and to deter him from using it in the future: this is how the aim of a military intervention was described by Obama’s Cabinet. At the beginning of September, before the UN experts have concluded their investigation on the above-mentioned sarin attack, Obama was urging the Senate to approve military action in Syria without which, according to the president, the international community appears to remain silent in the wake of chemical warfare. 

In the G20 Leaders’ Summit, the US’ push for a consensus wasn’t successful, yet one of the more interesting responses to such pressure came from the East. In this context, Russia appeared as an advocate of diplomacy and has offered Syria what is now called (yet not in Russia itself) a Kerry-Lavrov plan: to give up its chemical arsenal to avoid the threat of military actions. On September 21, before the set deadline, Syria handed over the required information to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), seemingly stepping onto the path of chemical disarmament. If Bashar al-Assad and his regime step outside of this path, the US is threatening Syria to disregard the official position of the UN and to engage in military action. 

While the world is watching each step Assad takes, is there anything strange to be observed in this situation? 

To begin with, that is the hypocrisy of both Russia and the US. Of course, the very fact that both sides are acting in a hypocritical manner doesn’t affect the very outcomes of their actions, yet it does provide us with a different perspective. In the case of the US, it’s the positioning of itself as a moral authority, knowing when to draw the line when the violence of war should not be tolerated by the international community. Naturally, the lives lost, the torture experienced and the injuries suffered by the people in Syria are not to be trivialised. However, when a strong ‘No’ to chemical weapons is being uttered by a country that has used it indiscriminately, in the form of Agent Orange, in Vietnam, and, more recently, in the form of white phosphorus, in Iraq, its self-assigned role of a moral authority seems rather incredible. Political positions of countries might change; history in the light of which we see these positions doesn’t.

The diplomacy coming from Russia makes this situation even more bizarre. When Vladimir Putin is addressing Barack Obama in The New York Times, appealing to the International Law and inviting Obama to exchange the language of force for diplomacy, things just don’t seem right. A seemingly strongly phrased question to ask, based on the suffering and death of residents of Chechnya and Pakistan, would be this: what can one war criminal ask another in the name of peace in a third country?

To partially explain the position Russia is taking, let’s turn to statistics. In 2011, Russia’s arms sales to Syria amounted to one billion dollars (although the delivery of parts of the arms ordered was postponed to mid-2014). Before the war, in 2009, Russia’s investment in Syria’s infrastructure, tourism and energy sectors reached 19 million dollars. Let’s add a naval base to all this and it becomes clearer why Russia is expressing its concern for Syria so vocally. At the same time, there’s a risk of exaggerating Russia’s interests in the region: even big numbers in Russia’s export and investment statistics seem less significant when we look at where else it is investing and who else it is selling its arms to. 

It seems that the Kerry-Lavrov plan is overshadowing the results of the UN chemical weapon investigation: the chemical weapon was indeed used yet it’s still unclear by whom, although Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist, states that the attack was conducted rather professionally, by the Syrian regime forces. The West claims it’s Assad who’s behind this attack while Russia, on the other hand, says it has received proof from the Assad government that the attack was organised by the Syrian rebels. Either way, it seems that as Syria is starting to keep its word and start reducing its chemical arsenal, and the West’s determination to punish the ones behind the sarin attack has become less loudly proclaimed. All we can do now is hope that, once the fighting ceases, we’ll be able not only to point to the groups behind this attack but also to hold these groups legally accountable. 

In recent days, we have seen more attempts to use diplomacy to move matters forward. On September 22, the Syrian National Coalition announced it was willing to hold peace talks with Assad, granted that the end result of these talks is a newly formed interim government. Interestingly, this Coalition is comprised of Assad’s opponents who are currently based outside of Syria, yet the rebel groups physically present in Syria do not agree with the premise of these talks. They would only be willing to hold peace talks if Assad agreed to step down. 

How probable is a scenario in which we see Assad coming to the negotiating table? The answer to this question does appear to depend, at least partially, on the international community. The fact that Syria has agreed to give up its chemical arsenal already sounds incredible, so perhaps a combination of more diplomatic measures as well military threats is what will indeed push the government into talks with the opposition. Another question to raise here is what that opposition would include. The Syrian National Coalition is not the people on the ground, risking their lives fighting Assad’s forces. Would the people actually fighting on the ground consider them legitimate representatives of the whole opposition? As importantly, how can that opposition hold both supporters of a liberal democracy and Al Qaeda fighters?

While the Syrian government is allowing its chemical arsenal to be inspected, and while no new interim government – with or without Bashar al-Assad – is being formed, the daily lives of Syrians are not improving. If not gas attacks, then other gruesome war crimes  continue, refugees are fleeing the country to find home elsewhere, which is not always successful. As the black clouds of US military action are still gathering above the region, diplomacy remains the only scenario without which peace in Syria seems impossible. When that will happen depends on Syria itself and its political and religious divisions, but there’s definitely a role for the international community to play. Instead of providing Syria and the rest of the world with arms, it should focus on providing reasonable conditions for peace talks. Without a firm first step towards peace talks, other steps cannot follow. 

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