Brief Thoughts on the Russia-US Deal (and No, I’m Not in Favor of Force)

by Kevin Jon Heller

On both twitter and the blog, readers seem to have inferred from my previous post that I’m somehow disappointed that the US-Russia chemical-weapons deal does not automatically allow force for noncompliance. I suppose that’s my fault; I tend to assume when I write that readers have at least some prior knowledge of my politics. So let me be clear: I am categorically opposed to the US using military force against Syria in the absence of Security Council authorization. (And I’d be very skeptical of it with authorization, but at least it wouldn’t be illegal.)

So what do I think of the US-Russian deal? For what it is, and assuming Assad complies, it seems like a good idea. Anything that reduces Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons is positive. Although I don’t think Assad ordered the Damascus attack, I have no doubt he would use chemical weapons if (as seems unlikely at that this point) the rebels ever threatened to overthrow his regime. And of course someone in the Syrian military used chemical weapons, so it would be great if that could not happen again. I also have little doubt that the rebels would use chemical weapons if they could, so anything that limits that possibility, as well, is a good thing. I also hope that the deal will put pressure on other states in the region — Israel and Egypt, in particular — to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy their own stocks of the weapons.

That said, my central critique of the US obsession with chemical weapons still stands: they are only a very minor part of the conflict. The real problem is the systematic violence the Assad regime has unleashed against its own people with conventional weapons — and the equally unconscionable, if less intense, violence inflicted on those same people by the rebels. This deal not only does nothing to address that violence, it significantly distracts attention from it. When was the last time the media focused  on anything in Syria other than chemical weapons? Just this week, Human Rights Watch published reports on a mass execution of 248 people by Syrian forces in May and on the Syrian military’s widespread use of cluster munitions, which are no less indiscriminate than chemical weapons, while the Commission of Inquiry published a report documenting the Syrian military’s numerous — and deliberate — attacks on medical facilities. How much attention have those reports received in the media?

My hope, of course, is that a successful resolution to the chemical-weapons problem will free up the relevant parties, and the media, to focus on the need to find non-military ways to pressure the Assad government and the rebels to stop killing innocent civilians. But I’m not holding my breath. I imagine 95% of the coverage we will see in the coming months will focus on whether Syria is actually complying with the US-Russian deal. In other words, business as usual. Meanwhile, Syrian civilians will continue to be killed through conventional means in large numbers.

5 Responses

  1. The Syrian government’s roaring endorsement of the agreement says it all really.

  2. I’m guessing part of the plan is to avoid a “rogue” chemical arsenal in case of internal power stuggle if the opposition wins. (That’s what I’d put forward if I was in Russia’s shoes).

  3. The failure to also address biological weapons is a glaring error.

  4. Response…
    I agree with the Kevin that the focus on chemical weapons is a distraction from the greater issue which is the massive crimes against civilians committed by both sides. I suspect that our leaders are grateful for this distraction as no one seems to know what to do about the real problem. The interventionists do not have a plan for Syria after Assad and the non-interventionists don’t have a plan to stop the killing.

  5. I’m curious to what you think would be proper enforcement measures, barring force. I think the debate now (especially as I see it in US/UK media) is centered in a blatant false dichotomy: either bomb the living hell out of Syria or do nothing. That to me is the real “deadlock” in the SC, that no other options are being put forth. I also haven’t seen many alternatives being seriously offered in the scholarly/blog arena, so since you’re also against force I’d like to know which options you think would be applicable.

    I haven’t read much on the issue but it seems to me the blue-helmet era is fading away, the SC (and potential participating States) being very wary to allow peacekeepers in light of criminal liability issues and cost. But an ordered cease-fire, implemented by blue-helmets could be an option that does not mean using force against Syria.
    The SC could also impose, well, pretty much anything imaginable, the most obvious being a binding negotiation process between the parties in Syria, beside a cease-fire.

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