Syria: Breathing Space for Negotiated Peace Efforts

The use of chemical weapons in Syria, by whatever parties, followed by the Russian diplomatic initiative, has led to a US-Russian agreement on safeguarding and dismantling Syrian chemical weapons. This agreement may be an important turning point in the prolonged war in Syria.

Through Moscow’s good offices, the Syrian government has agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention which came into force in 1997.  The UN inspectors have provided a first Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 and are following up on reported chemical weapons use in other parts of the country in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol ratified by Syria.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in The Hague is mandated by the UN to carry out the inspection and destruction of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpile.  The inspectors, currently estimated as a team of 100 persons, will be accompanied by a small detachment of the UN security staff as some of the chemical weapon sites are located in contested areas where some fighting is taking place.

The destruction of chemical weapons is both time-consuming and expensive.  Both Russia and the USA have asked for extensions of time needed for the dismantling of their chemical weapons although both started shortly after the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997, at first by dumping the weapons into the sea. What is more important at this stage than destruction of Syrian chemical weapons is the consolidation of chemical weapon sites and their placement under UN and international control.

Some commentators, such as Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times have asked “Are we making too much of chemical weapons?  Probably less than 1 percent of those killed in Syria have died of nerve gas attacks.  In Syria, a principal weapon of mass destruction has been the AK—47.”  The reply to such observations is double.  The first is that the 1925 Geneva Protocol against the use of chemical weapons is one of the longest serving laws of war.  To fail to react would lead to an undermining of all the limitations and restraints on the weapons of war which have been slowly and difficultly drawn up through the League of Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United Nations.

The second reply is more directly related to the conflict in Syria.  The agreement on chemical weapons could lay the groundwork for a political settlement between the government of President al-Assad and his opponents. Awareness of the dangers of the current situation in terms of lives lost, refugee and displaced persons, destruction of the economic infrastructure of the country, and the negative impact on neighbouring countries is growing.

There seems to be an increased willingness on the part of Russia and Iran to play a more positive role if their interests are preserved.  Some members of the al-Assad government are increasingly realistic as to the national conditions which led to the early non-violent protests.  They stress less than before the external factors, the role of neighbouring states and the floating population of jihadist fighters.

The United Nations Secretariat, which has a certain possibility of independent action, could play a larger political role if backed up by the USA and Russia. The high quality of UN Secretariat action on the chemical weapons issue may open a door to a greater political emphasis on reconciliation. There could be a greater cooperation of non-governmental organizations with the UN on the Syrian issue.

The projected date for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons is mid-2014.  This is about the same time as the end of the term of the current government and proposed elections of the President and the Parliament. The two dates could be used as a symbolic new start for a better society.

I suggest that the 2005 Algerian referendum on Peace and Reconciliation is probably the most realistic model for an end to the civil war in Syria.  The 1991-2005 conflict between the Government of Algeria and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS from the name in French) had led to some 200,000 deaths.  The Islamic guerrillas were also reinforced by a floating population of Islamic fighters coming from Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere who had no stake in finding a broadly acceptable compromise to tensions in Algeria.

The Peace and Reconciliation referendum and subsequent Presidency of Abdelaziz Boutefika have not brought about great reforms or social justice. They have brought relative peace.  This may be the most we can hope for in the Syrian situation.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.