Syria: The Chemistry of Continuing Conflict

By Frederic C. HofU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss issues related to Syria in Paris on May 27, 2013. (Photo: US State Department)

The framework

agreement arrived at by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, is a good beginning to a worthy end: removing all chemical weapons and their components from the arsenal of a regime that has used them in its longstanding and continuing campaign of mass terror against Syrian civilians. Kerry and Lavrov have measured the tip of a deadly iceberg and agreed on a work plan for sawing it off, one whose implementation rests nearly entirely on the cooperation of those who own the chemicals in question and who have used them against innocent civilians. Yet even if Bashar al-Assad’s regime permits this minuscule aspect of its war on Syrians to be excised, the regime terror that has killed more than 100,000, displaced some seven million, maimed, terrified, and traumatized countless more while swamping US allies and friends with refugees, will—unless the US and Russia intervene more broadly—continue as if nothing has happened over the past three weeks.

A Syria free of chemical weapons would be an achievement in its own right: surely US allies and friends in the region would agree, to say nothing of Syrians living in terror of Bashar Al Assad and his accomplices. Kerry and Lavrov deserve great credit for the framework they built. The US and Russia must take care, however, to ensure that this process does not give the Assad regime a free pass to resume its program of mass terror through conventional artillery shelling, aerial bombing, and missile strikes on residential neighborhoods. There can be no bridge from this framework agreement to a Geneva peace conference if mass terror resumes, even if the chemicals are holstered. Who, after all, would dare come to Geneva and presume to speak for Syrians opposing the Assad regime if Syrian civilians continue to be the targets of choice for Assad’s military commanders and his criminal auxiliaries? Who, under these circumstances, could preserve his or her credibility with people inside Syria?

The UN Human Rights Council recently released a new report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic on September 11. To its credit, the report does not ignore the episodic actions of jihadist elements that have benefitted from the failure of the West adequately to support the mainstream armed opposition: “Anti-government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and attacking protected objects. They have besieged and indiscriminately shelled civilian neighborhoods.”

Beyond citing the criminal actions of a handful of extremist armed elements, the bulk of the report spells out the policy and practices of a regime whose leaders and enablers will face judicial accountability for the balance of their days:

Government and pro-government forces have continued to conduct widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity. They have laid siege to neighborhoods and subjected them to indiscriminate shelling. Government forces have committed gross violations of human rights and the war crimes of torture, hostage-taking, murder, execution without due process, rape, attacking protected objects, and pillage …

Most civilian deaths result from indiscriminate or disproportionate shelling. These unlawful attacks are a primary reason for the movement of people inside the Syrian Arab Republic and over its borders …

Across the country, the Government shelled civilian areas with artillery, mortars and rockets. Aerial bombardment by helicopters and jet fighters was common and, in some areas, a daily occurrence. Imprecise weaponry, such as surface-to-surface missiles and cluster munitions, was regularly used ….

Government forces conducted their military operations in flagrant disregard of the distinction between civilians and persons directly participating in hostilities. The Government should take greater precautions to protect civilians inside areas where military operations are conducted. Precautions include the use of more targeted weaponry and the cessation of use of barrel bombs, poorly-guided missiles and cluster munitions.

The report was up-to-date as of August 16, 2013: five days before the regime conducted its chemical massacre. Headline writers were as literal as they were misleading, emphasizing that the report found fault with both regime and opposition practices—thereby advancing the Assad regime thesis that its opponents are as bad as, and even worse than, it. To read the document is to appreciate, however, the distinction between the episodic acts of disparate extremists and the systematic, relentless policy and practice of a regime still recognized by Washington as Syria’s government; a regime the United States has been reluctant to sink because—according to the remarkable testimony of a recently retired senior CIA official on September 15, 2013—its security forces will be needed to neutralize al-Qaeda elements in Syria.

Opposition leaders say they are broadly disheartened by what they see as a monomaniacal US obsession with the tip of Syria’s terror iceberg. Some had hoped that US airstrikes would have shifted the armed balance in their favor. Interestingly, the Assad regime’s enemies of choice—al-Qaeda and other jihadist extremists—supported their putative enemy (the Assad regime) in rejecting the prospect of a US military operation. It is, however, the reactions of Assad’s genuine opponents that should and (according to the secretary of state) do concern the US. Their greatest fear is that actual US policy in the wake of the chemical weapons framework agreement, and in light of the value allegedly placed by the US on security forces neck-deep into war crimes and crimes against humanity, is 180 degrees different from President Barack Obama’s call on Assad over two years ago to step aside.

The administration is, in fact, engaged in a balancing act that is neither balanced nor operationally feasible. It wishes now to support the mainstream armed opposition, but not enough to lay the groundwork for a military victory. There is, of course—according to Obama administration orthodoxy—no such thing as military victory in the Syrian context; only a negotiated political transition and national unity arrangement to be arrived at in accordance with the terms of the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué.

Set aside the fact that Assad and his allies are totally dedicated to a military victory. How does one calibrate a Goldilocks strategy where assistance is neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right? Why would one assume that a mainstream, Syria-first opposition sufficiently provided with the arms, equipment, and training to beat the regime on the battlefield would, in the wake of military victory, behave in ways contrary to the objective of Geneva: a transitional governing body operating in accordance with human rights standards? What in the end is a more likely route to fundamental political change in Syria: Bashar al-Assad authorizing his team at Geneva’s Palais des Nations to transition him politically; or Assad and his enablers being compelled by force of arms to yield power?

To date the administration’s desire to calibrate has resulted in support for the mainstream armed opposition that is plainly inadequate. Even with chemicals holstered, the Assad regime remains confident that Iran (drawing upon its Lebanese and Iraqi militiamen) and Russia will carry it to military victory as it rains terror down on civilians beyond range of its rifles and knives. Those who believe that Assad’s military calculation must be changed before he becomes disposed to a Geneva-like outcome can gaze upon their work to date with the Syrian opposition and weep. Indeed, those who so believe should ask themselves one question: what is the practical, operational distinction between arming, equipping, and training the opposition to win and supporting it enough to change Assad’s calculation? It is, in fact, a distinction without a difference. The calibration sought by the administration is beyond difficult. It is impossible and self-defeating.

With the framework agreement accomplished, Kerry and Lavrov will move in about ten day’s time (assuming Assad does not demolish the framework) to a discussion of convening a Geneva peace conference. Each side has an enormous burden in that connection.

For Russia, it is obliging the Assad regime not only to cooperate in the removal of the iceberg’s tip, but in the melting of the iceberg itself. There will be no Geneva if the regime campaign of mass murder and terror continues. Russia, perhaps with the assistance of Iran (which is not necessarily pleased by Assad’s Saddam-like fascination with the utility of chemical weaponry) can perhaps press a quiet message on its Syria client: you will get nothing from us—not a thing—until UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi tells us you are cooperating fully with him. If Brahimi tells you to implement Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, implement it. If you think you need UN observers to help monitor a ceasefire that you would declare unilaterally, we will get them. But you get nothing from us until we get the green light from Brahimi.

For the United States, it is persuading the mainstream opposition—armed and unarmed—that the chemical framework is good for Syria, good for the region, and bad for the criminal clan that authorized the use of toxic weaponry. On the final point, the Russian role in arriving at arrangements that would strip Syria of this arsenal may begin to persuade some who have supported the Assad-Makhlouf clan that the clan itself is far more trouble to them and to Syria than it is worth. With regard to the opposition, however, American actions will speak much louder than American rhetoric. The Syrian National Coalition has finally given birth to a provisional government. Will the United States support it, rally others to the cause, and encourage it to establish itself inside Syria? Will the United States recognize it and help defend it? Will the US, at long last, get serious about arming, training, and equipping mainstream armed opposition forces? If the Assad regime is persuaded to set aside its terror campaign, the burden will be on Washington and its allies to get the opposition to Geneva with no preconditions related to Assad’s ultimate status.

Washington has not adopted Bashar al-Assad as an interlocutor for the implementation of the chemical weapons framework agreement. Assad’s role is to see to it, for as long as he exercises political and military command and control in a critical part of Syria and over the chemical stockpile, that UN inspectors receive full cooperation as they catalogue and transport for destruction the witch’s brew he and his predecessor accumulated over the years. The mainstream Syrian opposition also has an opportunity to cooperate with an initiative that can be good for Syria and for a region well-versed in the no-limits reality of regime immorality and criminality. Yet if that opposition is confronted with the regime returning to business as usual brutalizing civilians while the United States is paralyzed trying to calibrate that which cannot be calibrated, one should not be surprised if it continues to lose ground to Assad’s al-Qaeda enemy of choice and if it is unwilling to facilitate its own political coup de grace by showing up at Geneva while Syrians are murdered and stampeded in droves.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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