The deal on chemical weapons reached by Russia and the United States marks the latest chapter in the West’s effort to stay out of Syria’s civil war. After Russia’s diplomatic initiative, a military strike has been avoided. The White House says that diplomacy backed by a credible military threat has succeeded, and European leaders claim that their appeal for a UN process was heard. Obama’s wish to avoid military solutions may have created new momentum for negotiations with Iran. But this moment of jubilation could be short-lived: a daunting task at the UN awaits; military action may still be needed; and transatlantic cohesion has been damaged.
For more than two years, US and European governments have successfully navigated developments that could otherwise have formed a casus belli and led to Western entanglement in Syria. In the summer of 2012, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish air force jet, and was accused by Ankara of lobbing mortars over the Turkish-Syrian border and staging car bombings in southern Turkish towns. The attack on a NATO member-state could have triggered military action against Syria, but instead the alliance showed restraint and sent German, Dutch and US air defence batteries to southern Turkey.
In November 2012, France and the UK – followed a month later by the US – stated that President Assad no longer represented the Syrian people, but no action was taken to force a change of regime. The US and Europe have also long resisted arming the rebel groups. When it became clear in early 2013 that Assad was winning, the European Union – under French and British leadership – and the United States lifted the arms embargo. But the subsequent flow of arms to rebels has been limited, reflecting concerns that the weapons might end up with Al Qaeda affiliates. The US, UK and France have been providing jeeps and communications technology, and possibly small arms, but most heavier material, mortars and anti-tank weapons, are sent by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on August 21st is the closest the US and its allies have come to military intervention in Syria. If it were not for the use of poison gas, the US and others would have remained on the side-lines, but moral imperatives and presidential credibility required action, however reluctant. European division and US foot-dragging followed.
What makes the current crisis so uncomfortable and damaging for the West is that it is largely self-inflicted; Obama’s red lines on the use of chemical weapons, when crossed, forced his hand. European divisions have made matters worse, particularly when Britain’s prime minister David Cameron – initially in favour of a strike – deferred to the House of Commons and lost, while the French president remained committed to military action. Without a united Franco-British front, Germany, the Netherlands and others continued to prevaricate and say they had not been asked to support a military strike, or – like Poland – did not have relevant military capabilities. Other European states, including Italy, Spain and Belgium, believed the UN should act. Only Denmark backed the French.
Meanwhile, more than two weeks of intense diplomacy passed before the EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton was able to forge a common European position. A carefully-worded statement agreed on September 7th said that “a clear and strong response is crucial” to the poison gas attack, but it fell short of calling for military action. Instead it urged the Security Council to push for a political solution.
A divided West was inching towards a military intervention for which there was little political appetite and even less public support. President Putin’s initiative to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons could be the ‘deus ex machina’ to avoid an unwanted military campaign.
While it is impossible to know for sure, Putin’s diplomacy may be informed by the fear that any US military involvement could decisively turn the tables on Assad. A shift in the military balance would cause Moscow to lose an ally in the region and perhaps its Mediterranean naval base, but Putin’s support for Assad is fuelled by the concern that Al Qaeda-linked groups might take over in Syria and could eventually spread to Russia.
In spite of comments by President Obama that a strike would be limited – or in Secretary Kerry’s words “unbelievably small” – any military action has unpredictable consequences. A strike was meant to ‘deter and degrade’ Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. The US was aiming for a ‘Goldilocks’ intervention; too soft, and it would only be a symbolic punishment; too hard, and it might topple Assad, strengthening jihadist rebel groups. But reality is never so straightforward, and the adversary always has a vote in a conflict. Assad could make life difficult for any US-led coalition, for instance by using chemical weapons again; placing human shields around potential targets; or using Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah to strike Western assets or Israel. US credibility would then demand further escalation. By regaining diplomatic momentum, Putin was able to protect his interests, and his client in Damascus. Whatever the outcome, Moscow will have bought time for Assad, and Russia will step up its arms shipments to Syria, hoping to tilt the military balance in favour of Assad. The US, UK and France should consider balancing this by increasing their efforts to arm moderate rebels.
The agreement between Russia and the US will have to be enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution. France, the US and UK prefer a resolution under chapter 7 of the UN charter, which could allow the use of force in the event of non-compliance. But Russia has said an explicit reference to military action is unacceptable.
If the Russians stand firm, Obama will face a choice between a resolution without ‘teeth’, or circumventing the gridlocked Security Council. In the first case, the Russians and the Syrian regime will claim that UN-backed military enforcement is off the table; and Obama will be criticised by US hawks in Congress for weakness. But the outcome could be more ambiguous. During the Iraq crisis ten years ago, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1441, pushing Iraq to fulfil its disarmament obligations. It was adopted under chapter 7, but did not explicitly mention the use of force. The Security Council could pass a similar resolution now.
Washington and Moscow have an interest in agreeing a resolution because the alternatives are less palatable. But given the distance between the Russian and US positions, a face-saving compromise would leave the enforcement mechanism deliberately vague. In 2003, as Saddam Hussein continued to defy the UN weapons inspectors, this clause – and its lack of specificity – became the focus of a dispute in the Security Council. Unfortunately, a similar resolution on Syria will sow the seeds for future US-Russian disagreement. The technical obstacles associated with a verification mechanism in a war zone are plentiful, and if Syria breached the resolution, a fractured West could still end up being drawn into the conflict.
Nevertheless, if a resolution is adopted and the Syrians carry out their side of the bargain, this may do more than just prevent Syria’s future use of chemical weapons. Iran’s new moderate president, Hassan Rouhani – strengthened by a policy of US restraint in Syria – has signalled a willingness to talk to Obama. This positive momentum offers the best hope for some time to move diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme forward, and should be embraced by the US and Europe.
Progress on chemical weapons could also create some momentum for a general ceasefire and the start of a peace process. The EU ought to be able to unite around this goal, at least. It should now start working with Russia, the US, Iran as well as the groups in Syria to get the Geneva 2 negotiations underway in the hope of moving towards a political solution.
A stalemate at the UN would be damaging; Putin could say he produced an olive branch that the US was unwilling to accept, and paint Obama as a warmonger; while members of Obama’s own party and isolationist Republicans will accuse him of risking US entanglement in another war. The EU would find itself in an uncomfortable position. Fundamental to the EU’s foreign policy is support for international norms, of which the prohibition on chemical weapons is one (the 2003 EU security strategy describes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as “potentially the greatest threat to our security”) and support for the United Nations is another. These conflicting norms would ensure that Europe remained divided.
The worst option for US credibility is if a resolution is not agreed and the United States shies away from military action. Credibility is an important currency in international relations. It would be seen as a victory in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, it would sap the morale of Syria’s rebels and it would send a message that the use of chemical weapons may go unpunished. It would make Israel and Saudi Arabia uncertain about US assistance on Iran’s nuclear programme. Pyongyang’s hand would be strengthened, and among allies in the Asia-Pacific – where US security guarantees are considered crucial to check the rise of China – signs of US weakness would make leaders nervous. Western impotence in Syria will reduce America’s – and by extension the West’s – international standing, strengthening those that believe Western decline creates opportunities to expand their influence.
Deal or no deal, the crisis has negatively affected transatlantic relations. In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates complained publicly that Europe was not equitably sharing the burden of military risks and expenses. Not much has improved since then. In Libya, eight out of twenty-eight NATO allies participated in the bombing phase of the air campaign. Now an even smaller number of Europeans would stand by the US. Washington has not drawn upon NATO’s command headquarters or common surveillance assets (as happened in Libya) or even mentioned NATO. The US probably wanted to avoid bringing Europe’s division into the North Atlantic Council, where unanimous support would be needed. While much has been made of the US rebalance towards Asia and the consequent need for Europe to bear a greater burden for security in its neighbourhood, most of Europe is still passing the buck to Washington. Once again, the US and Russia get to sort out a security issue in Europe’s neighbourhood without Europe being at the table.
Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.