Syria: a Morton’s fork between peace and appeasement?

CBCEW » Middle East North Africa » » Syria: a Morton’s fork between pe...

The Bishops’ Middle East North Africa (MENA) consultant, Dr Harry Hagopian, offers his latest article on the situation in Syria after chemical attacks on a Damascus suburb that left hundreds dead.

The piece is taken from Dr Hagopian’s website.

Harry Hagopian is our main studio guest for the popular podcast series Middle East Analysis.


Over the past three weeks, I too have become a bit of an expert on chemical weapons. I now refer to them as CW, and can pepper my conversations with words like phosgene, chlorine, mustard gas and VX! …

I can talk somewhat learnedly about the Geneva Protocol of June 1925 and the subsequent Chemical Weapons’ Convention (CWC) of January 1993 that strove to ban the use of such nasty instruments of war under International law. I can even keep up a discussion about those chemical weapons and nerve agents that bedevilled the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) let alone featured in the attack on the Kurdish population of Halabja by the late Saddam Hussein in 1988.

There is no doubt about it: those chemical weapons have epitomised what is most horrid and equally most desperate in our bestial instincts. Mind you, though, the enforcement of those conventions banning their use has been quite an uphill struggle too as was amply evidenced on 21st August in the execrable CW attacks on towns and villages in the eastern Ghouta outskirts of Damascus that were confirmed by the UN inspectors and resulted in many gut-wrenching deaths.

And like a big storm building up in the horizon, the world was also building itself up towards a crescendo that would punish the perpetrators of this breach in our World Order to remind it – and more importantly other “rogue” countries – that nobody can behave with sheer impunity and expect to get away without any retribution. But given that the UNSC was unable to endorse a Resolution for any such retributive attack in view of the Russian and Chinese vetoes, we started mooting a humanitarian intervention that would somehow bypass the UN. Arguments and counter-arguments galore filled our pages and screens: could this be done, would it fly and if so would it be legal?

Then, almost too abruptly, an unexpected event salvaged a hopeless situation. This deus ex machina was an ostensibly inadvertent slip by US Secretary of State John Kerry that morphed into a Russo-American deal in Geneva few short days ago. So we now have a plan that is meant to dispossess Syria of its [roughly] 1200 metric tons of chemical weapons that are spread roughly over 10-20 sites. All that the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) needs to do now is to identify those weapons, localise them within Syria and then secure them for destruction.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy? No, not really!

I am relieved we have averted a war that was frankly ill-planned and one that President Obama was straining every bodily sinew in order to make it go away. But this temporary respite is only that – a respite – and so I would like to peg a few reflections and concerns that still prey on my mind today.

To start with, I would suggest that President Obama’s opposition to such an ‘unbelievably small’ attack was not because he is a wimp. After all, he is the commander-in-chief who protects US long-term interests and who pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan whilst also sending killer drones into different countries like Pakistan and Yemen to eliminate terrorists irrespective of the ‘collateral damage’. Yet, this is also a president who is caught up in a self-paradox. On the one hand, he exhibits an emotional desire to avoid war and focus on domestic policies rather than impose US will-power on the world. But he is also influenced by the US civil rights’ movement to stand up for the weak and the oppressed. No wonder he looked remarkably drained and unusually inconsistent of late.

Moreover, I still cannot truly understand why we in the West stood by silently for well over two years without showing any hands-on concern or adequate compassion towards the Syrian population and then rushed to act with such alacrity. In my books and much as using chemical weapons is indeed a crime against humanity, so are the deaths of 117,000 human beings and the wholesale destruction visited upon Syria.

This week, after Kerry and Lavrov spent thirty-six hours by the shores of Lake Geneva, the outcome that has been lauded worldwide ensures a roadmap for the elimination of those chemical weapons in Syria. But will this truly happen despite the stringent controls and UN oversight? Is it equally true that some of those weapons have been shipped to Iraq and Lebanon already? After all, the Wall Street Journal reported that Syria has also scattered its stockpile of chemical weapons to as many as 50 sites in a bid to complicate US efforts to track them. So can one trust the Assad regime? That answer is not academic: ask the Lebanese and they recount countless hair-raising and first-hand stories about how brutal and untrustworthy this clan can become to ensure its survival. Do we in the West truly have the political gumption to enact any UN-friendly measures under Chapter VII if – and when – necessary? Or will we discreetly look the other way as we wring our hands in rue and join some of those phalanxes of peace activists who think that peace is merely the absence of war? Refugees today number 2 million men, women and children in countries neighbouring Syria and another 4 million inside Syria itself. Those numbers would increase (I have seen this happen during wars and earthquakes) if the bombardments with conventional arms continues unabated (as is happening right now) and I sometimes wonder if we are so clueless or naïve to expect Jordan and Lebanon to shoulder this burden alone only to have their economic – and therefore their political – structures crumble inevitably?

Here, I also must voice my deep concern for the indigenous Christian communities in Syria. They, like other communities such as the Druze, Kurds and some Alawites, are caught on the horns of a big dilemma in terms of their security or welfare. As Jeremy Bowen reported for the BBC from Damascus, “the religious mosaic of different sects is breaking up”. But constantly bemoaning the fate of Christians – Maaloula comes to mind today – and assuming wrongly that they all support the regime as claimed by some of their hierarchs does them a huge disservice and exposes them to further perils. After all, the exodus of Christians from the MENA region – from 20% in the early 1900’s to less than 5% today – did not start with the so-called Arab Spring. Unlike Muslims, many Christians do not look at their nationalism and citizenship through the lens of their religious identity.

So what should happen now that we have embarked upon this post-Geneva chapter between the USA and Russia? The moment is indisputably fraught with dangers but it is also pregnant with possibilities.

The attack by chemical weapons is not the ‘it’ factor that really defines the crisis in Syria for me. What defines it is the fact that the six initial months of peaceful demonstrations were weaponised by a brutal Syrian regime and led to the carnage and rubble in some parts of Syria today. What also defines it for me are the sectarian aspects of the conflict that have been directly stoked by the regime and the mushrooming of al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadi and takfiri movements that are not only pernicious and intolerable but also uncharacteristic of most Syrians. So we should not devise our policies or formulate our opinions only on this premise since what matters is ensuring a transition (as Geneva I stated ) into a more democratic and free Syria that is only achievable once the political system shifts for the country and all Syrians have a real say over their future.

For this to happen, and with the report of the UN monitors, three distinct components must now kick in. First, the ICC should be seised to bring to trial those key actors in the Assad regime for crimes against humanity. Second, there should be a huge humanitarian effort that would address the gasping needs within parts of Syria that are bereft of water, electricity, home or food let alone facing rampant poverty and wholesale destruction. And third, the international community should address the question of refugees so they can return eventually to their hometowns and do not turn into a new version of an old Palestinian refugee problem.

Were the UN to fail yet again, the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as ius cogens in International customary law could well kick in again through the prism of a humanitarian intervention. This might still not be viewed as legal if vetoed by Russia and even China at the UNSC but it could nonetheless be argued as being legitimate. After all, the military intervention to stop the attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 was legally questionable too because there was no UNSC Resolution permitting it. But at the same time, there was wide acknowledgement of its legitimacy.

So a workable oxymoron for me would be to add that the greater the sense of legitimacy in cases like Syria, the fewer are my concerns over illegality – subject to those three criteria:

  • There exists convincing evidence of extreme humanitarian distress;

  • No practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;

  • Force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of humanitarian relief and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim.

It is quite true that President Putin spared President Obama’s blushes with this astute deal in getting rid of the Syrian chemical weapons. However, it leaves wide open – in fact much wider now – the whole issue of what happens next in the war between the Assad regime (with its allies) and the opposition rebels (with their own allies). Would this proposal to destroy those weapons save the Assad regime but mire the country down into further violence? Could this be a confidence-building measure that might well create a win-win solution and lead up to Geneva II? Should Iran be invited to the table of negotiations given its huge influence? Will this be another clever ploy to perpetuate the Assad regime?

What some Western politicians and pundits fail to fathom is that the survival of the Assad regime is not necessarily the antidote for extremist Islamist factions – roughly 10,000 altogether – in Syria. As Michael Weiss opines, the antidote could well be the reinforcement of those forces under the Supreme Military Command of General Salim Idris who want to maintain a multi-confessional and pluralist Syria and who do not wish to go down the road of religious vendettas.

The MENA region has become a veritable hornet’s nest, but despite this maelstrom of expert confusion and constant shifts, political slipups and sleights-of-hand, I think first and foremost of all its men, women and children. For me, they alone remain the hapless and fearful victims of a sorry war that promises them further anarchy and also atrocity.

So Morton’s fork is quite clear for me: do we labour for real peace or do we opt for an artificial – and short-term – appeasement that might suit our purposes but ignores those of the region? Do we insist upon a transition or do we decide that we will simply not pay Syrian deaths much mind at all … so long as they die in conventional ways only?