Can diplomacy work with Syria?

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International responses to the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria continue to evolve rapidly. US plans for military intervention are on hold for now as various parties consider a Russian-led proposal-below to place Syria’s chemical arsenal under international supervision.

My team of Middle East, US and Russia analysts has been covering the Syrian crisis extensively, and we caution that while any non-military route is to be welcomed in principle – given the grave implications of renewed Western entanglement in the Middle East – the latest diplomatic initiative may prove unworkable. Syria is unlikely to comply fully with the conditions of any deal, and military options may be back on the table before long.

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Best regards,

Robin Bew
Managing Director and Chief Economist

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Syria accepts Russian proposal

A major diplomatic initiative led by Russia has derailed plans for a US‑led military intervention in Syria. Seeing a chance to halt US air strikes, Syria has welcomed a proposal calling for it to place its chemical weapons arsenal “under international control”, with the eventual aim of destroying the weapons. Meanwhile, the US and its allies have also cautiously welcomed the plan. However, in reality, the latest diplomatic move may well prove unworkable: Syria is unlikely to give UN weapons inspectors free and unfettered access to its chemical weapons arsenal, and therefore the US military option could be back on the table before long.

Nonetheless, at least for now, the momentum behind US military action has been halted. The proposal itself seemingly stemmed from an offhand comment by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, on September 9th that Syria could avoid an attack if it destroyed its chemical weapons—although the US administration has since “clarified” that the idea had originally been floated during talks between the US president, Barack Obama, and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a week earlier. Whatever the case, soon after Mr Kerry’s comments, Russia (a strong backer of the Syrian regime) put forward the plan for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control.

Seizing his chance after meeting his counterpart in Moscow, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al‑Muallim, announced that the Syrian government welcomed the Russian leadership’s proposal, “arising from the concern of the Syrian leadership for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country”. Reinforcing the message, the prime minister, Wael Nader al‑Halqi, was quoted on Syrian state television accepting the proposal on September 10th—although no Syrian official has yet stated explicitly that Syria will destroy its chemical weapons arsenal. The US, for its part, has been more cautious, but Mr Obama still described the move as a “positive development”, and, with support for military action within the US Congress ebbing, a procedural motion in the Senate to begin debating a resolution backing military air strikes was postponed on September 10th.

UN route is resurrected

Having previously been unwilling to put forward a resolution on military intervention to the UN Security Council, given the certainty of a Chinese and Russian veto, the latest diplomatic twist has handed the US and its allies an opportunity to re‑explore the UN route. On September 10th the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, announced that France would be putting forward a resolution demanding that Syria’s chemical weapons stocks be put under international control and dismantled. Crucially, the resolution would be framed under Chapter VII, which in effect gives the resolution military backing for its enforcement.

The obvious concern to those countries aligned against the regime of Bashar al‑Assad is that Syria’s acceptance of the Russian proposal is a ploy, designed merely to forestall a US attack. Even if it accepts the terms of any disarmament proposal, the regime could arguably still delay the work of the inspectors indefinitely, citing overweening security concerns—clearly, the weapons inspectors would require a ceasefire to be in place if they were to be able to work unhindered. Meanwhile, the sincerity of the Assad regime is also questionable, given their previous record of obfuscation and secrecy. For example, the UN chemical weapons investigative team that was dispatched to Syria in August was repeatedly delayed owing to objections from the Syrian government over its scope. Equally, the regime also succeeded in delaying the team’s mission to explore the alleged chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 21st by five days—long enough for much of the evidence of the attack to either fade or be corrupted.

Force still on the table

Although early reports indicate that Russia is unwilling to pass a resolution framed under Chapter VII, it is feasible that an alternative resolution could be agreed that includes verifiable confidence-building steps, against which Syrian compliance, or lack of it, can be measured. In the event that the US and its allies judge that the Syrian regime is not complying, the US administration could take the case for military action back to Congress, and military preparations would recommence. However, whether such a scenario would succeed in winning over a sceptical public (popular opinion in both the US and the EU is against intervention) remains to be seen. On the one hand, by exploring the diplomatic route, the US and French governments would at least be able to contend that they have exhausted all options before launching military operations. On the other hand, the momentum behind a military intervention will be lost as the outrage over the chemical weapons attack of August 21st recedes.

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