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July 30, 2013

Chemical weapons or not, more arms in Syria fan the flames
Posted by Homa Hassan

Russia and the U.S. need to take first conflict resolution steps—then Syria can

Exactly one year froSyria weaponsm now will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I. A war of firsts in many respects, it was also the advent of modern chemical warfare, when canisters of chlorine and phosgene gases dispersed by the wind into the notorious trenches wiped out swaths of soldiers, and survivors faced a lifetime of suffering. The subsequent uses of chemical weapons in the 1980s and 90s by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Aum Shinrikyu doomsday cult in Japan horrified the international community, so one might understand why chemical weapons use could lend itself to the basis of pinning down “red line” criteria for heightened U.S. involvement in Syria.  However, despite the impulse to react to Syria’s abuses with action such as arming the rebels, sending more arms into the conflict will undoubtedly end poorly.

The two year anniversary of the Syrian conflict coincided with the arrival of two United Nations officials in Syria this past week to begin outlining the scope of inquiry with Syrian officials on allegations of sarin use in Aleppo.  However, the official verification of chemical weapons should not be the determinant of the United States’ next step. While the Obama administration is not tied to committing arms to the rebels in light of the allegations, as is with most U.S. foreign policy decisions, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  So in as unpredictable a conflict as Syria’s civil war, common reason has to supercede political standing in vital decision making.

As UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi remarked, there is no military solution in this explosive civil war, and sending in more weapons will only “fan the flames indefinitely.”  With Russia still brokering arms contracts with Assad’s government and the United States discussing arming the Syrian opposition, these two powers’ foreign affairs leaders are looking for a way to break the impasse contributing to the status quo.

At the beginning of this month, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reinvigorated the initiative of a Syrian peace conference discussed in May that got steamrolled by Assad’s battle gains. But as Kerry stated, “‘Whether the regime is doing better or the opposition is doing better is frankly not determinative of that outcome because the outcome requires a transition government,’ referring to efforts to negotiate a political settlement.”

While U.S.-Russian cooperation is an optimistic sign and both are committed to having the peace conference, as is to be expected, there are multiple hang-ups: The Russians want Iran, which backs Assad in the talks, but the U.S. wants them out. The rebels want additional arms supplies as a precondition to involvement, but the fear that more arms will fall into the wrong hands is looming heavily.  The make-up of who on the Syrian side should be involved in the talks vary.

Brahimi suggests what might be the crucial precondition to the conference, but not for either faction of the Syrians.  He says “the flow of arms has to stop to both sides, stressing its importance to a political arrangement. Considering the stalemate in the Security Council preventing intervention, the divided public opinion on the level or lack of international involvement, and perhaps most significantly the unpredictable consequences of adding more weapons to the mix, it oddly appears that the most controllable aspect is first getting the U.S. and the Russians (and the Iranians and the Europeans) to lay down their arms, at least for the duration of the talks and until a political settlement can be reached.

The U.S., while not walking back on its “red line” commitment, can still strengthen its line of credibility, role in the conflict, and legitimacy as the world’s indispensible superpower.  The Russians find a new outlet of global leadership in an unlikely footing.          

Since getting on the same page has been impossible in rounds of the Security Council, the death toll in Syria is disconcertingly high and escalating, and discussions of the responsibility to protect are failing to mix with volatile regional power struggles, it’s time to expand the alternate tracks of piecing together the foundations of a diplomatic solution. 

Ms. Hassan is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the National Security Network and has a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.


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