Bashar’s Chemical Romance, Part 2: What Happened in Syria, and What Can America Do About It?

Quite a bit has happened since the first part of this tale. In response to what looked like the use of chemical weapons by forces in the Syrian army against a rebel-occupied area of the Damascus suburbs, the Obama Administration pushed for a military strike meant to, depending on which person in the administration you asked and what day you asked them, either degrade Bashar al-Assad’s chemical warfare capabilities or to substantially weaken his ability to combat the rebellion. Initial efforts focused on building an international coalition to strike Assad in punishment for his violation of “international norms” regarding chemical weapons, but with action in the UN Security Council stymied by the assurance of a Russian veto, efforts to cobble together a “coalition of the willing” hampered by the British Parliament, and even the Arab League lukewarm about the idea of military strikes, it began to look as though the US was going to go it alone. Well, to be fair France and Saudi Arabia were also clearly on board with the proposed strike, “on board” meaning in both cases that they were fully prepared to send some really positive vibes America’s way.

Then, as things were beginning to look troubling for the Obama Administration, with the US public firmly opposed to military action against Syria, President Obama announced that he would take the case for strikes to Congress for approval, rather than act unilaterally (a course that would have been Constitutionally dubious).  The planned Congressional vote to authorize the use of force against Syria looked like it was going to go very badly for the Obama Administration (or very well, if you buy the idea that the administration’s real preference is to look like they badly want to strike Syria but just aren’t allowed, but that’s too much multi-dimensional chess for me). The Administration insisted that it was not prepared to act without Congressional approval, even if they never ruled it out entirely. But then, a potential solution to the situation arose thanks to a gaffe (or maybe a “gaffe”) by John Kerry, who offered (or “offered”) that Assad could preempt American strikes if he agreed to turn his chemical weapons over to international authorities; the Russians decided to take Kerry’s seemingly off-the-cuff remark seriously (or “seriously”) and seem to have gotten Syria to agree (or “agree”) in principle to doing just that. US and Russian negotiators reached an agreement on a framework that calls for Syria’s chemical weapons to be seized and destroyed by UN inspectors pursuant to a Security Council resolution that will spell out “consequences” should Assad not comply.

Still, nothing’s over until it’s over, and this situation doesn’t feel like it’s going to be over soon. Syria could clearly renege on its obligations under the deal and face international reprisals. It could renege in a debatable way and retain Russian support but still face unilateral American strikes. The deal could prove impossible to implement. It’s already proving difficult to craft a Security Council resolution that satisfies all five permanent members. Oh, and there’s still the matter of the civil war raging in Syria that’s killed over 100,000 and displaced millions, and risks destabilizing the region, all without the use of chemical weapons. With that in mind, let’s talk about what’s happening in Syria and what is likely to happen in the near future.

What is the history of Syria’s chemical weapons program?

Syria signed (in 1968, better late than never) the 1925 Geneva Protocols banning (sort of) the use of chemical weapons in combat, but it had, until last week, refused to sign the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which aside from a much more robust ban on their use also bans the manufacture and storage of chemical weapons. The origins of Syria’s chemical weapons program go back to the 1970s and are assumed to be Syria’s answer to Israel’s NBC (nuclear, chemical, and biological) weapons programs, though to be fair Syria has had other regional antagonists (chiefly Iraq and NATO, in the form of Turkey) with WMD or WMD intentions (not to mention very imposing conventional military forces) aside from Israel. Her stockpiles are said to include the usual suspects: blistering agent mustard gas as well as nerve agents Sarin, Tabun, and (nastiest of all) VX. Syria has consistently denied possessing chemical weapons, which is the kind of thing you do when you have chemical weapons, and anyway we kind of have proof now that they do.

What happened in Ghouta on August 21?

In the early morning of August 21, Doctors Without Borders reports that three hospitals in the rebel-held Damascus suburb called Ghouta began receiving patients who had symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve gas. Hundreds died; the final death toll varies from around 350 to over 1700 depending on who is reporting it. Soil and clothing samples from the area of the attack have tested positive for sarin and the remnant products left by the chemical breakdown of sarin.

More questions after the jump.

Was the Assad regime behind the August 21 attack?

It seems highly likely that forces loyal to Assad’s government are responsible for the attack, but that’s not completely confirmed. It’s certainly possible that the rebels have seized a supply of chemical weapons, but nothing like that has been reported. A UN report released earlier this week confirmed that sarin was used and, while not explicitly identifying Assad’s forces as the culprits in the attack, seems to rule out the possibility that it was the rebels who were behind it, although that hasn’t stopped Assad and Russia from continuing to peddle that theory. The kinds of surface-to-surface weapons used in the attack are not consistent with anything that the rebels are known to have seized and trajectory analysis indicates that they were launched from a government-controlled military base; it stretches credibility to the breaking point to think that the rebels could have infiltrated a government-held base with the equipment necessary to launch these kinds of missiles. There’s also the question of why the rebels would gas an area under their control; I guess they might have been hoping to generate an international military response against Assad, or it could have been one rebel faction gassing a competing faction, but that was a stretch even before the UN report was issued.

Assuming it was Assad’s forces that carried out the attack, why?

It’s not clear that the Ghouta attack was even intentional, or that it had been ordered at the highest levels of the Syrian government, let alone to divine the reasons behind it. There are three scenarios under which the attack might have taken place:

  1. The attack may simply have been some kind of mistake, either due to a breakdown in the chain of command or because the artillery unit that fired the missiles simply didn’t know that their warheads carried chemical munitions.
  2. A rogue local commander may have ordered the attack, as a report in the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag would seem to suggest. My German sucks, but the upshot of that piece is that German intelligence has apparently, over the past four months, intercepted several requests from commanders in the field for the Assad regime to permit the use of chemical weapons, all of which have been denied. It’s possible that a local commander simply took matters into his own hands and ordered the attack without approval.
  3. The Assad government and/or his top military commanders may have ordered the attack, which is certainly the position that the US has taken. The Obama Administration claims, contradicting those German reports, that it has intercepted communications implicating the highest levels of the regime in the attack, though it hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with that information. There are other, unconfirmed, reports of chemical weapons being used by government forces against rebels in this conflict, which could support the “rogue commander” theory but could also support the idea that chemical weapons have, in fact, been authorized by Assad himself. Certainly, if Assad were going to order a chemical attack on a rebel position, an area like Ghouta from which the rebels can directly threaten his safety in Damascus would be a likely target. Arguing against this theory is the fact that the attack came while UN weapons inspectors were actually in Syria, and the fact that Assad has at worst been in a stalemate with the rebels for some time now.

Could military strikes deter Assad, or the next dictator facing a similar situation, from using these weapons?

I’m no military expert, but let’s say you were a dictator in a country where a sizable-enough portion of the people had decided that they’d pretty much had it with you to seriously threaten your regime’s continued existence. You’re a fairly cosmopolitan guy, so you’d heard about, say, what happened to Muammar Gaddafi after his people toppled him, so you don’t have a lot of hopes for transitioning to a peaceful, well-funded exile. Your most powerful ally, Russia, the country that could reasonably be expected to provide you safe passage away from your country and into that exile, would almost certainly rather have your death to complain about as a chip in its great power game with America than to have you costing them money as a disgraced exile. If you think your situation comes down to “gas the rebels or die,” and you’d have to think that since chemical weapons are mediocre battlefield weapons at best, is there any amount of potential international condemnation or western military reprisal that would cause you to rethink gassing the rebels? I’m struggling to come up with any way that question could be answered “yes.”

Now, by all outward appearances Assad is not at the “gas the rebels or die” point, far from it, so I suppose that an international military reprisal that seriously degraded his ability to continue fighting against the rebels would be a legitimate threat to him. But when the American Secretary of State is talking about an “unbelievably small” attack that would only target Assad’s ability to launch weapons that probably won’t help him defeat the insurgency anyway, that’s not going to deter Assad or the next guy in his shoes from using these weapons if they really believe they’re going to be overthrown/killed otherwise.

Is the US-Russia deal likely to hold together?

I think a certain amount of healthy skepticism about the ability of this deal to stick together is warranted. “Major differences” over the wording of a draft UN Security Council resolution in support of the deal have already arisen, mostly over how the resolution should invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force in response to “any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” Unsurprisingly the US, UK, and France are pushing for the resolution to invoke Chapter 7 as the response to any Syrian violation, while Russia is insisting that Chapter 7 should only be included as one possible response, which would give it another chance to block any military response in the event that Syria does break the agreement. Complicating UN negotiations is the fact that Russia is absolutely committed to one outcome in the Syrian civil war (Assad remaining in power) while the US and its allies still aren’t really sure what they want. There are three potential outcomes to this war: the rebels win and establish a secular government, the rebels win and their most extreme, theocratic elements take over, and Assad wins and stays in power; from America’s perspective a secular rebel victory is the best outcome, but Assad remaining in power is actually preferable to an extremist takeover. That’s an almost impossibly small needle to thread, and it’s a big part of the reason why America’s response to Ghouta has seemed like such an indecisive mess. If Assad does violate the terms of the agreement (and, again, if he’s really threatened at some point I don’t know why he wouldn’t), the same Russian certainty and American uncertainty are going to collide again and the deal may very well fall apart.

What’s the deal with Iran?

As American military scholars like Vice President for Bombing Other People Lindsey Graham know, we have always been at war with Eastasia Iran. So where do they stand on Syria? Iran is Syria’s closest ally (Syria was, until the Iraq War toppled Saddam, Iran’s only reliable ally in the Arab World) and has continued to support Assad throughout the civil war. However, Iran also has direct, recent experience with the effects of chemical weapons, and their use tends to be a sensitive subject where the Iranians are concerned. Ghouta may expose some divisions between the major Iranian foreign policy players on Syria; President Rowhani has signaled that his government condemns the use of chemical weapons, but the hardline Revolutionary Guard (which does not report to Rowhani) will continue to funnel aid to Assad regardless. Supreme Leader Khamenei (who theoretically does control the Revolutionary Guard but, in practice, probably can’t do much to stop it from acting in Syria) will probably continue backing Assad for geopolitical reasons, but how strongly? Iran has an economic interest in seeing sanctions over its nuclear program lifted and likely does not want to antagonize the west over what’s happening in Syria; domestically, Khamenei may also benefit from being seen as shifting toward the popularly elected moderate/reformer Rowhani and away from the Revolutionary Guard. Iran’s blanket support for Syria does not seem to be all that popular in Iran, which is perhaps not surprising given the money it’s sending to bolster Assad at a time when the Iranian economic is in tatters. There may well be an opening for real engagement with Iran over a regional issue on which the US and Iran are not all that far apart (given that our opposition to Assad is conditional, not absolute), and maybe strengthen the domestic position of Iranian moderates in the process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.