To the Brink and Back in a Blink: A Recap of Two Turbulent Months in the Syrian Crisis

The on-going conflict in Syria saw a flurry of action in diplomatic circles in the August and September of this year as the international community looked on in horror after the massive August 21 chemical attack utilizing sarin nerve gas in the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus where government and opposition forces were fighting. Following this attack, the United States ramped up its rhetoric, and alongside European allies France and the United Kingdom, seemed poised to act against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose forces they blamed for the attack. However, the deadlock in the United Nations Security Council, could not be broken as the veto-wielding Russian Federation constantly blocked efforts to legitimize foreign military action against Syria, or even to lay blame for the attacks at Assad’s feet. Without a clear mandate from the UN, and despite apparent domestic opposition for any military action in all three countries, it appeared likely that a military intervention would take place.

A series of unforeseen developments over the month following the attack would see the more hawkish elements stymied, and a more multilateral approach taken. However, for many following the conflict in Syria, if you had blinked, you would have missed it. To begin with, the wind was taken out of the sails of the latest coalition of the willing when UK MPs voted against taking military action in Syria in a narrow 285-272 vote in the House of Commons. Despite this, it appeared as though U.S. and French forces would press on without the British, until President Obama, perhaps playing for time, walked his rhetoric back, and agreed to consult Congress on the matter of Syria.

What occurred over the ensuing weeks during the debate in Congress and internationally, was nothing short of remarkable. On September 9, Secretary of State John Kerry, during a speech taut with rhetoric against the Assad government repeatedly making reference to instances of genocide in the 1990s as making the case for military intervention in Syria, also remarked in an off-the-cuff statement that Syria might be able to avoid an American attack “if [Syria] handed over [its] chemical weapons,” but quickly added that this was most unlikely to happen.

It is of these chance events that history is made. On September 12, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in an unprecedented move and the “first public acknowledgement of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile,” agreed to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. How did the entrenched autocrat come around to such a deal? He got by with a little help from his friends. Russia, seizing on the opportunity presented by Kerry’s comments and their relationship with the Syrian government, executed a diplomatic coup by not only crafting a workable proposal to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons (to which Syria agreed!) but also by reaching out to the American people themselves in a lengthy op-ed from Russian President Putin in the New York Times. In it he addresses the destabilizing effect unilateral military action would have on the region, as well as international cooperation, in addition to playing upon fears of Islamic terrorists seizing power in any post-Assad Syria. The gambit worked, and on September 26, a little over two weeks from Kerry’s remarks, a deal was struck in the often dead-locked UN Security Council to authorize the handover of weapons.

Much happened in the month of September, as the world stepped back from greater military involvement in Syria and a multilateral deal was struck. Recent reports state that the chemical weapon dismantling project is proceeding on schedule to “dismantle all chemical weapons production equipment” by November, while the destruction of the weapons already produced is still in its early stages. The process may yet fail, but reports are optimistic.

What does all this mean for international peace and security? The American reversal from unilateral military action, to a more watered-down multilateral approach has limited the possibility of an escalation of the Syrian conflict, and a feather in the cap of the United Nations, an organization desperately in need of a victory for international cooperation, no matter how small. It also represents a triumph of international law given the decision by U.S., France, and UK to abide by the decisions of the international community, and their own citizenry rather than acting with impunity. Russia’s stance as a global power-broker is affirmed, despite the cynical appraisal of Putin’s opportunistic actions as merely an effort to humiliate or out-manoeuvre the United States. Regardless of his motivations, Putin’s actions have achieved something of substance on the international stage, and his statements ring true regardless of their sincerity. In a particularly poignant passage from the NYTimes piece in reference to international law, Putin states:

“The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression”, and goes on to say regarding the watching world “if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”

While it would certainly seem to fly in the face of Russia’s past actions, such as during the 2008 war against Georgia, the normative value of Putin’s words still hold. The implications are clear, while the short-term benefits of launching punitive strikes against Assad’s forces (quite debatable in any event) may satisfy Western leaders now, the ramifications for global peace and security, as well as international law could be dire.

All of this is of course small comfort for the Syrians living and dying in their war-torn country. The reported deaths from Syrian chemical weapons deaths pales in comparison to the outstanding death toll at 100,000 plus from merely conventional weaponry. While the international community may have scored points for cooperation on chemical weapons, the humanitarian crisis in Syria is only deepening. It can only be hoped that this agreement over chemical weapons may lead to further decisive action to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people and perhaps broker a diplomatic resolution to a worsening conflict.

And where was Canada during all of this dear iAffairs reader? The federal government continued to staunchly call for a “political” solution to the Syrian conflict, while soundly condemning the use of chemical weapons. This policy of say little, do less was aided by the prorogation of parliament in early September, which ended only in mid-October, despite calls by opposition leaders to open parliament specifically for the purpose of debating the Syrian issue. When parliament finally did reconvene, there was nary a mention of this contentious issue in the Throne Speech. Syria, and its international implications, would appear to be simply yet another thing this government, and perhaps the Canadian people, would rather not think about.

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