By: Ivan E. Mercado (guest writer to the blog)
Since August 21 2013, when chemical weapons were purportedly used in Syria on the civilian population in the rebel-controlled Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus, the world has been witness to an international joust between old Cold War enemies. Alost immediately after the first reports of the use of chemical weapons, President Barack Obama called it a “big event of grave concern” that would significantly alter the US calculation with regards to the conflict. By August 24, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron jointly stated that the attack, which they were placing at the feet of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, merited a “serious response.” And the drum beat for military action continued to grow with each passing day.
On August 29, Mr. Cameron took his case for military intervention in Syria to the British Parliament and in a stunning reversal his motion for authorization to use force was defeated. Mr. Obama, however, seemed unfazed and thereafter turned to another Cold War ally, France. President Françoise Holland manifested France’s willingness to take affirmative action to make sure such attacks did not occur again.
The White House made public a U.S. Government Assessment on the use of chemical weapons in Syria which stated that it had “high confidence” that the Syrian government was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry, in an address that coincided with the release of the report, also said that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons “multiple times” during the course of the past year. Kerry went on to repeat that planning for military action was underway.
However, on August 31, 2013, President Obama told the American people in a televised address that he would seek Congressional approval for a limited but significant military strike against the Syria government. Obama said that the attacks would be limited to deterring additional chemical weapons strikes and that ground forces would not be used. Obama would ultimately agree not to seek a vote in Congress, apparently fearing a defeat similarly to David Cameron’s in Great Britain.
Sensing an opportunity to help its ally Syria in the shifting sands of public and international opinion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a Russian proposition whereby Syria would agree to place its chemical weapons under international control and dismantle them, and the United States would agree not to conduct a military strike on the country. Prior to the Russian announcement, Secretary of State Kerry, speaking in the United Kingdom, suggested that if the Assad regime turned over all of its chemical weapons to the international community “without delay,” a military strike could be averted. Speaking to media outlets after Secretary Kerry, President Barack Obama said that the United States would consider the plan.
September 10, 2013: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that the Assad regime welcomed discussion on Russia’s plan to give up Syria’s chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed how to implement the plan through the UN Security Council, with France beginning to draft a resolution based on the Russian proposal, but with stipulations that force be authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if Assad fails to implement the provisions of the resolution.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to reach an agreement on a comprehensive plan for the accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The plan requires Syria to provide a full declaration of its stockpile “within a week” and provide the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN access to all chemical weapons sites in Syria. The plan calls for the OPCW inspectors to complete their initial inspections by November and calls for the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons and chemical agents by the first half of 2014.
As of today, the main sticking point is the instance by the US and France to add language that the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter for noncompliance with the agreement by Syria. The concern specifically relates to Article 42 which allows for “tak[ing] such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.” This Russians and the Syrians see it as an end-run toward UN authorization for military action, which presumably could not be obtained in the Security Council given the current situation. And here we sit, waiting to see how events continue to develop.
One question now is who has won this game of Cold War brinksmanship? Syria, Russia, the US, France, the Insurgents? In looking at this one must consider what prompted this month long saga—a heinous attack using the most barbaric of weapons nerve gas, Sarin Nerve Gas. As with the Cold War itself we may not know the losers and winners for many years to come and the people of Syria will likely not get justice for the war crimes committed in Ghouta and elsewhere by both sides. In any event, it does not seem like Assad’s political position has worsen after the attack.
Next, should the US and its allies have invoked Chapter VII without a UN resolution and simply attacked Syria immediately after 21 August 2013? I ask this in the context of how the world should respond in reaction to the most atrocious international crimes, e.g. genocide, mass killings, forced internments, etc. Are the negotiations a sign that the international community is headed in the right direction? or are there any parallels to the appeasement of the Nazis or the inaction in Rwanda?