It looked as if things had gotten so bad in Syria that the Obama administration would finally intervene. Despite a defeated motion in the House of Commons preventing the involvement of their traditionally stalwart British ally, the US together with France seemed to be moving irrevocably towards decisive military action.
And then miraculously, a last-minute proposal by Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons was raised, averting the possibility of American military strikes against the country anytime soon.
While US Secretary of State John Kerry insists that military strikes are still on the cards if Syria doesn’t comply with the terms of the agreement, the Assad regime still seems to be in a very joyous mood these days. A Syrian minister declared the US-Russian deal a “victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends.” Pro-government Syrian newspapers have lauded the deal as well, highlighting the fact that the deal involves no sanctions or use of force.
John Kerry and his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have outlined a number of steps that Syria must take to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile, one of the largest in the world. Damascus must submit a comprehensive list of its arsenal, and international inspectors must be on the ground by November. By November, chemical weapons production and mixing also need to be destroyed. All chemical weapons need to be completely destroyed by 2014. The US and Russia will work together with the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to make this a reality. The deal has also won the support of China, which like Russia has vetoed several resolutions in the past on taking military action against the Assad regime in Syria.
Meanwhile, a new UN resolution is being worked on in case the Assad regime fails to comply, warning of “serious consequences” if it doesn’t meet up to its obligations under the agreement. What these “serious consequences” will exactly encompass however, is something that the US and Russia still don’t seem to see eye to eye on. Kerry has said that a resolution would open the way to the invocation of Chapter 7 – authorising the use of force – in the “specific cases” of non-compliance by Syria with a UN order to give up its chemical weapons, or if it uses chemical weapons.
However, Lavrov has rejected any automatic resort to force, saying that any response has to be approved by the UN Security Council, and any action has to be in accordance with international law.
The Russian plan to abolish Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal has significant detractors of course, not least from the rebels. The head of the opposition Syrian Supreme Military Council, General Selim Idris, has said that the plan allows the Assad regime to escape accountability for the killing of hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons. “All of this initiative does not interest us. Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people. A crime against humanity has been committed and there is not any mention of accountability.” The rebels also fear that the deal will buy time for the Assad regime to continue taking territory and inflicting significant casualties on the rebels.
These rebel sentiments have found resonance among many Republicans as well. According to House Intelligence Committee Chairman and Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, the US-Russia deal will provide openings for America’s enemies in the region to increase their influence. He asserts, “not only Russia is going to take advantage of this. So is Hezbollah and so is Iran.”
Their arguments are not entirely without merit. Assad has agreed to diplomatic initiatives in the past, only to intensify his campaign against regime opponents. For example, when Assad accepted Arab League monitors in late 2011 and early 2012, shortly afterward he began large-scale bombardments of rebel-held areas.
There’s doubt a framework for the abolition of chemical weapons is a diplomatic breakthrough, particularly given the recent UN report confirming the use of sarin in a rocket attack in Damascus in August. However, chemical weapons still only account for 2% of the deaths in a conflict that has taken over 100, 000 lives in the past two years.
Moreover, the US-Russia plan does not directly tackle the ongoing violence within Syria, which continues to escalate. While the US is continuing its support of rebel groups with weapons shipments, whether it can be effective against Assad forces – the shipments are limited to light weapons and other munitions – is another matter.
The Syrian conflict is one whose final outcome will affect not only the lives of the Syrian people, but also those of their neighbours. Not all the rebel groups are the kinds of people you’d want to invite for afternoon tea either – for example, the Al-Nusra Front, one of the strongest groups in the Syrian resistance – is also an Al-Qaeda affiliate. With such a complex conflict and so many intertwined factors, we can only do what we can to alleviate the suffering of those who have been hurt most by this war: the everyday people. Those who like you and me, have dreams and aspirations, children and friends and families who they care about. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers.