Tag Archives: OPCW

The answer to Syria is the OPCW, not reckless machismo

As US president Donald Trump hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping last night, he also launched a Tomahawk missile strike in Syria. (Facebook)

It was an impressive bit of dinner theater for Xi Jinping last night at Mar-a-Lago.

Less than three months into his presidency, Donald Trump has already deployed American force, launching a barrage of missiles against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The attack wasn’t a disaster — it didn’t appear this morning to have killed any civilians, it didn’t accidentally hit any stocks of sarin nerve gas. The strikes were well executed, and that’s to the credit of the US armed forces, US defense secretary James Mattis and US national security advisor H.R. McMaster. The strikes, which took place while Trump was hosting a dinner in Florida for the Chinese president, should put Xi on notice that the same fate could befall North Korea if Chinese diplomacy cannot retard or halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. (Though it might also put Kim Jong-un on notice that he should be more preemptive in his approach to international affairs in the Trump era).

Though it’s difficult, set aside how you feel about Barack Obama, on the one hand, and Trump, on the other hand. It’s possible to believe that in 2013, the United States and its European allies stood down from Obama’s ‘red line’ rhetoric because doing so facilitated the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons uqest to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Obviously, by 2017, it’s clear that Assad either produced new chemical weapons or never fully turned over 100% of his stocks back in 2013 and 2014. Either way, there’s a rational basis for responding with more force, and American officials on both the right and left (and many more US allies) are lining up to support Trump’s strikes in retaliation for the chemical warfare — including his 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state. In some ways, Trump’s step was a throwback to the Clinton administration, which routinely and liberally deployed missile strikes to send messages from Sudan to Iraq, long before the restraint of the Obama era and the full-barrel bluster of the Bush administration.

That still doesn’t mean it was the right step.

The international community’s chief goal now vis-à-vis chemical weapons should be forcing Assad to hand over the remaining stockpiles of any chemical weapons. That means getting OPCW on the ground (despite an ongoing civil war) to inspect and remove those weapons. But with so many more Russian troops on the ground in Syria today than in 2013, and with Moscow unhappy with Trump’s new approach, that will make it more difficult for the OPCW to maneuver, not less. That’s without getting into the issue of whether this hurts the ongoing US goal of defeating ISIS (hint: it does). That’s without getting into the constitutionality of the strikes without congressional approval.

Moreover, what happens if Assad (or someone among the pro-Assad forces) decides to gas 100 more people next week? Or 100,000 people? Will Trump escalate strikes? If you’re as brutal as Assad, it’s worth losing an airstrip that Russian forces can easily rebuild in a month.

Then what?

In short, it’s very easy to see how Trump could be forced to escalate, which could embolden North Korea. US military assets aren’t unlimited, and getting bogged down in Syria within his first 100 days as president would leave Trump far fewer military options (including not just actual force, but the threat of force) in dealing with the North Korean problem.

Did Assad win the Syrian civil war this week?


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


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.