In Syria in the coming weeks, 600 tons of the ‘precursor chemicals’ from which chemical weapons (CW) are made will be convoyed over land so they can be shipped out. The route goes through areas now being fought over. To remove CW from a war zone will be an unprecedented feat if successful – and equally without parallel if it goes wrong.
Precursor chemicals are safe when separate, lethal when mixed. There are armed groups in Syria who know how to put them to worst use. The operation is self-evidently fraught with danger but the alternatives of destroying them in situ or flying them out have been abandoned as too risky. Where they will be shipped to has not yet been fixed.
If this can be successfully done, all involved will deserve great credit. Yet doubts must remain. Remember when US Secretary of State John Kerry was first ambushed by the question, what could Assad do to prevent missile strikes against him? Answer: get rid of his CW with full accounting but, “He isn't about to do it and it can't be done.”
The aim of the Nobel Laureate of 2013 – award ceremony in Oslo on Tuesday 10 December – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is what is known as CVID: Comprehensive, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantling of the weapons. The process is as follows:
The Syrian government declares how
many of what weapons it keeps at what locations;
The Syrian government dismantles the weapons and prepares them for safe shipment;
OPCW inspectors monitor the process and verify that all declared weapons in all declared locations have been dismantled;
The Syrian army will transport precursor chemicals to one or more ports; according to the plan, the most critical chemicals will be shipped by the end of the year and all of them by 5 February 2014.
It is not hard to see the loopholes. The dismantling may well be done both verifiably and, if the OPCW can get the precursor chemicals safely out of the country, also irreversibly. But doubts will persist about comprehensiveness.
If you believe the Assad regime or elements in it are likely to be mendacious, you probably won’t believe in the integrity of the process, despite the competence and courage of the OPCW inspectors. If you don’t believe the Assad regime is inclined to mendacity, you nonetheless know plenty of others do. There is likely to be considerable suspicion and uncertainty, intelligence claim and counter-claim, and if by any chance a rogue group gets hold of CW – even from an entirely different source – and uses them, we will be back to the prospect of missile strikes again. Knowing that to be the case, some rogue groups may well set out to provoke just that.
So the risks are great, surrounding a unique, highly significant, possibly precedent-setting achievement that may nonetheless be only a qualified success.
And meanwhile, of course, the war goes on. The death toll is well past 100,000. About 2.5 million refugees have fled, mainly (about 1 million each) to Jordan and Lebanon. And the UN estimates a further 6.8 million Syrians have fled the fighting but remained inside the country – a total of 9.3 million displaced people out of a population of 22 million.
The bombs at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Tuesday amply demonstrate the risk of the fighting spreading outside of Syria. Outside involvement in the war brings with it the motive for taking the fight back where the outsider comes from. Iran’s embassy to Lebanon is in south Beirut, an area that is a stronghold of Hezbollah loyalty; both Iran and Hezbollah have forces fighting in Syria.
Saudi Arabia meantime is getting more deeply involved, intensifying and accelerating its efforts in recent weeks apparently in response to the US decision to go for CW disarmament rather than missile strikes.
The opposition to Assad has increasingly fractured between a primarily democratic opposition and the Salafist groups oriented mainly towards the al-Qaeda network, and the Salafists have increasingly proven to be the more effective fighting force. It seems Saudi Arabia is seeking to balance the al-Qaeda opposition with an opposition more to its liking and is ready to pour billions of dollars into training up an army.
If these trends persist, the closing three months of 2013 and the first three of 2014 will look in future like the period when a war that is already 2½ years old took on a new shape. If these trends persist (an important qualification, worth repeating), then what we witness now is that the formation of the fighting parties is stabilising. The chaotic situation of 800 armed groups fighting the Assad regime and its foreign supporters is transmuting into a three-sided war in which each one fights the other two.
There will probably continue to be some fighting groups that remain independent of those three sides. But there is the need for secure sources of finance and supply, for recruitment and training, and for some rotation of war-weary fighters so they can rest up before returning to the front. All this will draw many currently independent groups towards one of those three main formations. Groups that remain independent will probably have to turn to major crime to finance and supply themselves and will in time be functionally indistinguishable from organised crime groups.
There is no current reason to expect this three-sided war to end soon. The war will continue and the pain and bitterness will continue to deepen, adding to the difficulties of finding a negotiated settlement, while the military situation currently means victory is out of any one side’s grasp.
The diplomatic effort to get the fighting forces to Geneva absolutely must continue but diplomats and political leaders who see a stake in achieving peace in Syria can only be successful if they are open-eyed about what is happening and who needs to be at the table. They need to free themselves from the shackles of predispositions such as excluding Assad or not negotiating with groups labelled terrorist; they need not to decide arbitrarily who it’s respectable to negotiate with. It is the fighting forces that decide if and when peace is made; it is they who should be encouraged and incentivised to talk.
The diplomatic effort must continue but with modest expectations. It will be undertaken more in hope than imminent expectation, with great determination and endless supplies of patience. At some point there will be a real opening.
And at the same time, resources and energy must be devoted to the humanitarian effort in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon and to the political and economic efforts needed to ensure those countries do not get caught up even more than they already are in Syria’s hell.
This piece was originally published on Dan’s blog on November 22,2013.