Tag Archives: chemical weapons

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Did Assad win the Syrian civil war this week?

basharassad

It’s beginning to look a lot like the war in Syria is coming to an end — or, at a minimum, the nature of the two-year conflict is transforming into something quite different from what it was just a few days ago.freesyriaSyria Flag Icon

As a freak snowstorm covered much of the Middle East, threatening thousands of refugees from exposure to the cold, the Syrian opposition crumbled into opposing camps after the Islamic Front ( ‏الجبهة الإسلامية‎, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah), a merger of seven jihadist rebel groups created in November, pushed opposition general Salim Idris out of power earlier this week from his perch as chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (الجيش السوري الحر‎, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr) and executed several other moderate leaders in the Free Syrian Army.  Idris, who was in Qatar at the time of the jihadist push, reportedly returned to Turkey, not to Syria.

The merger last month transformed the Islamic Front, whose most important member is the Salafist-backed and Saudi-funded Ahrar ash-Sham (حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية ), into the largest rebel fighting unit within the Syrian opposition, with up to 45,000 fighters (compare that to between 20,000 and 40,000 fighters in the Free Syria Army).  While the Islamic Front represents a much more pro-jihadist coalition than the moderate leadership of the Free Syrian Army, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s still separate from the most radical al Qaeda affiliates that are also fighting the Assad regime.  But though the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front, جبهة النصرة لأهل الشام‎), which itself has up to another 15,000 fighters, is not a member of the Islamic Front, the two work closely together.  Another al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام‎) boasts up to 15,000 more fighters.  It’s still unclear whether the Islamic Front will supplant, oppose or cooperate with ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.

Another 40,000 Kurdish fighters operate in the relatively autonomist Kurdish territory in the far northeast of Syria.

No matter how much control Idris and the moderates still retain over the Free Syrian Army (and, well, it doesn’t seem like much), it’s clear to everyone that the opposition is now nearly as much at war with itself as with the Ba’athist regime of president Bashar al-Assad.  The joint US and UK decision to suspend non-lethal aid to the northern Syria opposition reflects how seriously power has shifted away from the moderate FSA leadership and toward the more radical Islamic Front– US policymakers were probably distraught to hear that US supplies have now fallen under the control of the Islamic Front. (For the record, this is exactly why many policymakers opposed the call from John McCain, US senator from Arizona, to arm Syria’s opposition with fully lethal aid).

The week’s amazing putsch within the Syria opposition follows confirmation from a UN report that chemical weapons have been used at least four times in Syria’s civil war, including the massive attack in Ghouta last August, where over 1,000 Syrians died from exposure to sarin gas.  Nonetheless, Assad continues to cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the OPCW is optimistic it can still meet the first December 31 deadline for the removal of the first trance of chemical weapons.

So how does the geopolitical stage look vis-à-vis the Syrian opposition these days? Continue reading Did Assad win the Syrian civil war this week?

Nobel by elimination: OPCW was the only worthy recipient

OPCW

The committee awarding the Nobel Peace Prize historically doesn’t shy away from making political statements through its award — and this year was no different.nobel-peace-prize

In retrospect, despite the Western media swoon over 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban and recovered in the United Kingdom to become a living symbol of the fight for women’s rights in the Muslim world, it makes a lot of sense that the Nobel committee would want to highlight the fight against chemical weapons, given that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war in August earlier this year was the worst chemical weapons attack since their use in the 1980s by Iraq.

Upholding the international ban on chemical weapons drew a very reluctant US president Barack Obama to the brink of military engagement in the Middle East.  In terms of war and peace over the past 12 months, there’s no denying that chemical weapons have playing a tragic starring role:

“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, in announcing the award. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”

(Honorable mention should go to Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who’s risked his life to fight rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Even if the Nobel committee’s goal should have been clear in retrospect, it was always going to be a challenge to identify an individual worthy of receiving the award.

Maybe Russian president Vladimir Putin, who took up an offhand comment from US secretary of state John Kerry to broker a United Nations Security Council deal whereby Syria would identify and begin eliminating its chemical weapons stockpiles.  But it may have been the US threat of force that pushed Putin to make the offer more than Putin’s natural instinct for peace.

Moreover, Putin presides over an awfully authoritarian state, and his record on press freedom, LGBT rights, civil rights for minorities and the Chechnya conflict hardly screams out ‘Nobel laureate.’  It was always more likely that Alexei Navalny, the crusading opposition figure, would win the prize.  Or Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the human rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Or Lilia Shianova, the director of Golos, Russia’s independent voting rights organization. Or Svetlana Gannushkina, who’s been a leading figure in providing humanitarian and legal aid in Chechnya.

It certainly couldn’t be Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who’s leading one side of an increasingly intractable civil war and whose regime was responsible for the August sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus.  Despite Assad’s apparent and swift cooperation with chemical weapons inspectors, he’s still engaged in a bloody fight against a mixed force of Sunni rebels and other opponents who want to end his family’s Alawite regime, which has governed Syria with an iron fist since 1971.  It also couldn’t be any of Syria’s rebel forces, some of whom are aligned with the most radical Islamist terror networks in the world.

Nor could it be US president Barack Obama, who already won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and his administration’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria was bumbling at best.  That may be the nature of realpolitik, and the end result is probably beyond what Obama and Kerry ever expected would be possible.  But it was hardly a shining moment for US foreign policy.

Moreover, both the United States and Russia have so far failed to destroy their own chemical weapons stockpiles, a fact that the Nobel committee acidly noted in awarding the prize.

So who was left? The chemical weapons inspectors themselves.

Through the process of elimination, the Nobel committee decided to award the prize to the entity whose very job is the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and throughout the world.

That’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW’s director-general pictured above), a 16-year-old organization based in The Hague in the Netherlands and the watchdog tasked with keeping the world’s countries in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention — and which is now playing the crucial role of effecting a deal that should eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability by mid-2014, if all goes according to plan.  The challenge in Syria represents the most high-profile challenge for the OPCW since its creation but, so far, the OPCW is rising to the task.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization sometimes falls like a wet blanket, even though it’s happened 24 times since 1901.  This year’s award follows the decision last year to award the prize to the European Union for its role in becalming the European continent over the past seven decades.

Giving the award to the OPCW instead of Malala (or even Putin or another individual) didn’t necessarily provide a picture-perfect, feel-good catharsis.  But it rightly shines a spotlight on an unheralded protagonist at a time when the OPCW’s work is far from complete — even if it succeeds in Syria, the world won’t be rid of chemical weapons.

Photo credit to AFP / Bas Czerwinski.

Putin’s Syria deal shows how US threat of force (instead of use of force) can achieve success

putin

While US president Barack Obama works to convince a skeptical American public and a hesitant US Congress to support military strikes against Syria over a chemical weapons attack last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin showed exactly why he remains such an important world player.Russia Flag IconUSflagSyria Flag Icon freesyria

That’s because Putin has apparently convinced Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad may agree to open his chemical weapons stocks to international supervisors. It’s not a sure thing — Putin wants a commitment from the United States to pull back from the brink of a military strike against Assad within the next week, and US policymakers want a resolution in the United Nations Security Council to demonstrate Moscow’s good faith in resolving the standoff over Syria.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem announced Tuesday that the Syrian regime was willing to open its storage sites and provide access to its chemical weapons:

“We fully support Russia’s initiative concerning chemical weapons in Syria, and we are ready to cooperate. As a part of the plan, we intend to join the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in an interview with Lebanon-based Al-Maydeen TV.

“We are ready to fulfill our obligations in compliance with this treaty, including through the provision of information about our chemical weapons. We will open our storage sites, and cease production. We are ready to open these facilities to Russia, other countries and the United Nations.”

He added: “We intend to give up chemical weapons altogether.”

It’s a staggering turn of events, and it is likely to slow potential US military action over Syria just a day after US secretary of state John Kerry gave Assad one week to hand over ‘every single bit’ of Syria’s chemical weapons in order to avoid a US-led strike against him in retribution for up to 1,400 deaths in Ghouta and eastern Damascus from what the United States and its allies believe to be a sarin-based chemical attack perpetrated by the Assad regime.

Even if there’s some zero-sum world where Putin ‘wins’ and Obama ‘loses,’ the end result is still a net win for the United States.  That’s because, if the Putin deal holds, it’s a result of the Obama administration’s strength — a casebook example where a US president uses the threat of force, not the actual use of force, to bring Russia and Syria to negotiate the terms of a political solution.

The threat of force is perhaps the most effective tool that the United States holds in international affairs because it can accomplish almost all of the goals (or more) of actual use of force while eliminating all of the negative, messy  consequences of military force — the cost, the destruction, the risk of civilian deaths, the risk of engendering wider mayhem in the Middle East, the risk of alienating Iran at a time of possible rapprochement under Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rowhani.  Although there’s also a risk that sometimes the United States will have to use actual force in order to make its threat of future force realistic, US governments in the past haven’t exactly shied away from quickly deploying force.

But if the deal holds, and Syria complies with the terms of the international community, presumably through a Security Council resolution (where Russia and the United States, as well as China, France and the United Kingdom hold a veto), it will be a huge win for the effort to reduce the proliferation of chemical weapons in the Middle East — and it will be a more satisfactory result for the Obama administration’s stated goal of strengthening the international norm against chemical weapons.  If Assad relinquishes the chemical stocks, it will not only prevent Assad from using them in the future, but also any regime that follows Assad.  A glance as the disparate groups that comprise the anti-Assad opposition is enough to tell you that no US administration would be incredibly keen having al-Qaeda sympathizers like the Syrian Islamic Front or the Jabhat al-Nusra, both of which are comprised of radical Sunni Islamists and Salafists, having access to sarin gas, either.

Obama is still scheduled to address the American public tonight on Syria, though the congressional vote is likely to be postponed.  The turn comes after Putin and Obama met face-to-face in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week to discuss the Syria crisis.  Although the general view late last week was that Obama failed to convince many of his G20 colleagues to support a military strike against Assad, Obama and Putin actually discussed the possibility of an international weapons handover, establishing the conditions for this week’s potential diplomatic solution.

The deal’s terms also come after Charlie Rose conducted an English-language interview with Assad yesterday, during which Assad warned the United States against an attack (and threatened potential consequences to US interests in the Middle East), demanded that the United States provide evidence of Assad’s culpability and refused to accept responsibility for the attack, all while making some fairly nuanced arguments himself against US intervention:

Though US policymakers are right to be initially skeptical of the Putin deal (and it will require a lot of access for UN inspectors to determine that Assad really has relinquished all of his weapons), you can expect hawks like US senator John McCain and other armchair generals to jeer the deal and characterize it as the result of the Obama administration’s weakness.  The top story trending at US news website Politico is a vapid piece entitled ‘The United States of weakness’ that purports to designate the US institutions that have ‘lost influence and lost face,’ as if the international crisis in Syria is some mid-semester grade card:

Barack Obama’s unsteady handling of the Syria crisis has been an avert-your-gaze moment in the history of the modern presidency — highlighting his unsettled views and unattractive options in a way that has caused his enemies to cackle and supporters to cringe.

But the spotlight on Obama’s so-far flaccid performance has obscured a larger reality; the Syria episode has revealed the weakness of multiple institutions and would-be leaders in American life.

If Obama and Putin pull of a deal over Syria, though, Obama will have accomplished his long-standing goal of holding the perpetrators of chemical warfare accountable, stabilized Syria no matter the outcome of its two-year-long civil war, demonstrated the will of the US government to use force to stop chemical warfare — all without firing a single missile.

It’s pretty doubtful that the Obama administration had this exact outcome in mind all along — maybe it’s just as likely that he could have set off a chain of events that catalyzes even more Middle Eastern violence.  We’ll never know if the Obama administration’s plan from the outset was to rattle the sabers until Putin and Assad agreed to a political settlement, but if so, it’s an incredible job well done — and it answers one of the more baffling questions of the US rush to jump immediately to a military strike against Assad.

I’m still not convinced that the United States even has solid intelligence that Assad is culpable for the attack, especially after reading the US government’s flimsy 1,434-word ‘government assessment’ 10 days ago.  While it seems very likely that his regime is responsible, there’s nothing to indicate that Assad ordered the attack or that it wasn’t a rogue element within the pro-Assad ranks. (After all, it bears repeating that Assad had no incentive to use chemical weapons — he was gaining ground in the civil war before August 21 and UN chemical weapons experts were actually in Damascus during the tragedy, hardly the best time to carry off a sarin attack).

While they’re at it, Obama and Putin should join ranks to convince the remaining six countries that aren’t yet signatories to sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention (or have not yet ratified the convention) — the list includes top US ally Israel, an emergent Burma/Myanmar, Chinese client state North Korea, Angola, Egypt and the newly independent South Sudan.

U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

Hassan Nasrallah

The United States doesn’t typically like to hand gifts to Hassan Nasrallah, the longtime leader of Hezbollah, the Shi’a militia that remains a key player not only in the domestic politics of Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East. freesyriaUSflagSyria Flag IconLebanon

But when news broke last Friday that U.S. president Barack Obama was preparing U.S. assistance to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, that’s in effect what the United States has done by broadening the two-year civil war in Syria, a conflict that neighboring, vulnerable Lebanon has largely managed to avoid in the past two years.

Hezbollah’s recent military mobilization against the mostly Sunni rebels, however, in support of Assad, was already rupturing the national Lebanese determination to stay out of the conflict.  The U.S. announcement of support for the rebels, however tentative, gives Hezbollah a belated justification for having expanded its own military support to Assad, and risks further internationalizing what began as an internal Syrian revolt against the Assad regime.

The U.S. decision to support anti-Assad rebels

The United States is signaling that it will provide small arms and ammunition to only the most ‘moderate’ of Syria’s rebels, though not the heavier anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry that rebel leaders have said would make a difference.  But even if the Obama administration changed its mind tomorrow, the damage will have already been done in the decision to back the largely Sunni rebels.  No matter what happens, Hezbollah will now be able to posture that it’s fighting on behalf of the entire Muslim world against Western intruders rather than taking sides in a violent sectarian conflagration between two branches of Islam.

Supporters of U.S. intervention credibly argue that Hezbollah’s decisive intervention earlier in May and in June in Qusayr, a town in western Syria, led to an Assad victory that will inevitably make Syria’s civil war longer and deadlier.  Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of Assad was a key turning point that marked a switch from indirect and clandestine support to becoming an outright pro-Assad belligerent in Syria, which brings tensions ever closer to exploding in Lebanon.  Furthermore, Russian support for Assad, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly strident opposition to Assad, as well as implicit Iranian support for Hezbollah, means that Syria is already a proxy for geopolitical positioning, whether U.S. policymakers like it or not.

But that doesn’t mean that the active support of the United States will suddenly make things better in Syria — after all, the United States has a controversial track record over the past decade in the Middle East.  It’s winding down a 12-year war in Afghanistan that, though it pushed the Taliban from power within weeks in 2001, has done little to establish lasting security or foster a truly national government.  Its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which toppled one of the two Ba’athist regimes in the Middle East in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and the subsequent U.S. occupation still failed to prevent vicious Shi’a-Sunni sectarian fighting that approached the level of civil war between 2006 and 2008 and that still simmers today.

It’s the same familiar kind of bloody sectarian violence that now features in Syria, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East.

Moreover, the risks to Lebanon are now even more staggering.  Lebanon, which had been set to hold national elections last weekend on June 16, has instead postponed those elections indefinitely, because negotiations among Lebanon’s various religious confessional groups to draft a new election law have taken a backseat to the more pressing task of keeping the country together.

The U.S. came to its decision in light of a determination that Assad had used chemical weapons against at least a small segment of the rebels, thereby crossing a ‘red line’ that Obama established in August 2012 in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign last year.  But as The Washington Post‘s Ernesto Londoño reported last week, U.S. advisers had already been working quietly with Jordanian officials for months in order to reduce the chances that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons will fall into misuse by either the Assad regime or by the opposition.

It still remains unclear just what the Obama administration believes is the overwhelming U.S. national interest in regard of Syria — though the Assad regime is brutal, repressive and now likely guilty of war crimes, there’s not necessarily any guarantee that a Sunni-dominated Syria would be any better.  Last Friday, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon indicated that he opposes the U.S. intervention in Syria because it risks doing more harm than good.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in a scathing commentary last week, the forces that oppose Assad are a mixed bunch, and there’s no way to know who exactly the United States is proposing to arm:

More staggeringly, [Obama] is planning to put arms into the hands of forces that are increasingly indistinguishable from hardcore Jihadists and al Qaeda – another brutal betrayal of this country’s interests, and his core campaign promise not to start dumb wars. Yep: he is intending to provide arms to elements close to al Qaeda. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane….

Do we really want to hand over Syria’s chemical arsenal to al Qaeda? Do we really want to pour fuel on the brushfire in the sectarian bloodbath in the larger Middle East? And can you imagine the anger and bitterness against the US that this will entail regardless? We are not just in danger of arming al Qaeda, we are painting a bulls-eye on every city in this country, for some party in that religious struggle to target.

I understand why the Saudis and Jordanians, Sunni bigots and theocrats, want to leverage us into their own sectarian warfare against the Shiites and Alawites. But why should America take sides in such an ancient sectarian conflict? What interest do we possibly have in who wins a Sunni-Shiite war in Arabia?

The ‘rebels’ are, of course, a far from monolithic unit — the anti-Assad forces include all stripes of characters, including the Free Syria Army, a front of former Syrian army commanders dismayed at Assad’s willingness to commit such widespread violence against the Syrian people, but also including more radical Islamist groups such as the Syria Islamic Front, the Syria Liberation Front and even groups with non-Syrian leaders with global links to al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is comprised of radical Salafists who want to transform Syria into an Islamist state.

Liberal interventionism strikes again

When Obama announced earlier this month that he was promoting Susan Rice as his new national security adviser and Samantha Power as his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I argued that it was a victory for liberal interventionists within Obama’s administration and that it could mean that the United States takes a stronger humanitarian interest in Syria.  Many other commentators, such as Wonkblog‘s Max Fisher, downplayed that possibility, arguing that their promotions meant ‘not much’ for U.S. policy on Syria, and that ‘there is good reason to believe that Power and Rice are not about to change U.S. policy in Syria.’

That, of course, turned out to be a miscalculation.  Less than 10 days after the Rice/Power announcement, the Obama administration is now ratcheting up its involvement in the Levant on a largely humanitarian, liberal interventionist basis, with the plausible possibility that a U.S.-supported no-fly-zone could soon follow.

The key fear is that the Obama administration’s ‘humanitarian’ response may result in an even more destabilizing effect on Lebanon. Continue reading U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability