Syria—it's time to launch a diplomatic war

Efforts must be made to re-invigorate the UN-sponsored Geneva peace process

April 18, 2018
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo:  Mikhail Klimentyev/Tass/PA Images
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Tass/PA Images

Last week, the United States, French and UK governments justified their limited attacks on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities on the grounds that the Assad regime had breached an internationally accepted barrier—he had used chemical weapons.

Efforts have been made to outlaw chemical weapons for over a century, starting with the 1925 Geneva Protocol and culminating in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997 when the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established. Today, 192 states or parties are signatories: every country except South Sudan, North Korea and Egypt. Israel has signed but not ratified it.

The Syrian government acceded to the convention in 2013, as part of the deal negotiated by Russia to prevent military strikes, after chemical weapons were first used in Syria. Russia guaranteed the removal of all Syria’s chemical weapons and in June 2014, the joint UN-OPCW mission to Syria announced that the task of removing declared chemical weapons was complete. Mission accomplished.

Or not, as subsequent attacks—verified by the UN-OPCW—have revealed. Since 2013, there have been more chemical attacks by the regime than many realise. This past January, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established by the UN Human Rights Council, confirmed that there have been at least 34 chemical attacks in the country since 2013, the majority carried out by the regime. Human Rights Watch has counted many more, at 85.

The Syrian government is not abiding by its obligations. And the Russian government is not guaranteeing much of anything. Instead it has wielded its veto at the UN Security Council 12 times to block action against the Assad regime.

Theresa May argued that last week’s military strikes were in Britain’s “national interest”—May, Trump and Macron emphasised that the strikes were not about nation-building, but to deter the use of chemical weapons and prevent their use being “normalised.”

It is important to ensure that these weapons remain beyond the pale. But if the US, UK, France and other countries remain too narrowly focused on chemical weapons in Syria, they would be setting a dangerous precedent.

Over the past few weeks, pundits and even some politicians have begun suggesting that, as Assad is winning the war, we should stop interfering—that what we are doing is prolonging the conflict and suffering. In other words, they are saying we should all get out of the way to prevent further loss of life, and let Assad finish the job.

Thus far, Syria’s civil war, now entering its eighth year, has been responsible for over 500,000 civilian deaths and the displacement of half the population—that is, 10m people. Most of those deaths are down to Assad, who is responsible for far more of the tragedy that has engulfed his country than the numerous Jihadi groups, including the so-called Islamic State.

By arguing that we should let Assad finish the job, we are essentially telegraphing to other authoritarian leaders that it is ok to kill and displace tens of thousands of civilians, as long as they don’t use chemical weapons. We are also not addressing the grievances that enabled IS to find fertile ground in Syria.

Yes, the Syrian civil war is complicated, and has only become more so the longer it has endured. In the early days of the war, when there were only a few groups competing for power, Robert Ford, the former US Ambassador to Syria, used to say “in Syria, things will get worse… before they get worse.” How right he was.

Yes, the opposition is weak and fractured, and far from monolithic. Many of those who remain in Syria have had no choice but to coordinate, for tactical reasons, with terrorist groups over the years, making it even more difficult to determine who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

And yes, Assad has military dominance on the ground, especially in the west of the country, thanks to support from Iran and Russia. However, in the unlikely event that the last opposition fighter left Syria tomorrow, the regime would still have enormous difficulty ruling the entire country, given the depletion of Assad’s ranks and the ruination of his country.

Even considering these arguments, efforts must now be made to re-invigorate the UN-sponsored Geneva peace process, launched at the start of the civil war. The US with the UK, France and other like-minded countries should use the current opening—having demonstrated they are not afraid to use force—to re-assert supremacy over the peace process in Syria.

The 2012 Geneva conference made some progress. The regime and the major opposition groups, as well as the Permanent Five members of the Security Council agreed to basic terms that laid out a commitment to political inclusion, a review of the constitution and legal system, and a transitional government (though there was never agreement between the US and Russia as to Assad’s fate).

The talks reached no final agreement and civil wars have their own momentum, frustrating even the most capable peacemakers. Yet, by the time Trump assumed the presidency, having promised to withdraw from all engagements in the Middle East, the Russians and the Iranians had seized the momentum and launched the rival Astana talks, effectively side-lining Geneva.

Astana is not a political process, even if the Russians have tried to sell it as such, but instead has been about establishing so-called “de-escalation zones” in opposition-held areas, where all parties would agree to cease the fighting, allow humanitarian aid to arrive and people to leave.

The reality was that the Syrian government did not cease its attacks in these areas, nor did some opposition fighters and militia groups. Civilians have continued to bear the brunt.

Over the last year and a half, even if the US government sent observers to the Astana talks, America has essentially removed itself from the game, and the Europeans followed suit. The US government went from leading to sitting on the side-lines, allowing Russia and Iran to assert primacy.

Who can reasonably argue that Russian and Iranian aspirations for a post-war Syria will cohere with those of the West, and especially the Syrian people?

The Geneva process is not dead and could be amended to better reflect today’s realities. But it needs American leadership. Many in Congress are pushing the Administration to clarify what the strategy is for Syria after the recent attack. Merely policing Assad’s use of chemical weapons and not expending greater efforts to end the war will only guarantee more suffering, more refugees and more terrorist attacks globally.

It’s not clear that Trump on his own would insert himself into pole position, but with the backing of the UK and France, this could be achieved. We know Trump is good at elbowing his way to the front of the crowd. He also claims he is the ultimate deal maker. It seems the White House may have made progress in North Korea. Here’s his opportunity to make that ultimate deal on Syria.