Why It’s Not Surprising Syria Is Destroying Its Chemical Weapons

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of weeks ago, Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum said he was surprised that Syria has, by all accounts, voluntarily given up its chemical-weapons capability:

I don’t really have any comment about this, except to express a bit of puzzlement. As near as I can tell, Bashar al-Assad is really and truly sincere about destroying his chemical weapons stocks.1 But why? I very much doubt it’s because he fears retaliation from the United States. And given his past behavior, it’s hardly likely that it’s driven by feelings of moral revulsion.

So what’s his motivation? For reasons of his own, he must have decided that he was better off without chemical weapons than with them. Perhaps it has to do with the internal political situation in Syria. Or maybe Russia got fed up for some reason. But it’s a bit of a mystery, and not one that I’ve seen any plausible explanations for.

I don’t think it’s a mystery at all. Here is the explanation:

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have firmly seized the momentum in the country’s civil war in recent weeks, capturing one rebel stronghold after another and triumphantly planting the two-starred Syrian government flag amid shattered buildings and rubble-strewn streets.

Despite global outrage over the use of chemical weapons, Assad’s government is successfully exploiting divisions among the opposition, dwindling foreign help for the rebel cause and significant local support, all linked to the same thing: discomfort with the Islamic extremists who have become a major part of the rebellion.

The battlefield gains would strengthen the government’s hand in peace talks sought by the world community.

Both the Syrian government and the opposition have said they are ready to attend a proposed peace conference in Geneva that the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene, although it remains unclear whether the meeting will indeed take place. The Western-backed opposition in exile, which has little support among rebel fighters inside Syria and even less control over them, has set several conditions for its participation, chief among them that Assad must not be part of a transitional government — a notion Damascus has roundly rejected.

“President Bashar Assad will be heading any transitional stage in Syria, like it or not,” Omar Ossi, a member of Syria’s parliament, told The Associated Press.

The government’s recent gains on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in the north outside the country’s largest city, Aleppo, have reinforced Assad’s position. And the more the government advances, the easier it is to dismiss the weak and fractious opposition’s demands.

As I have pointed out before, the US’s obsession with chemical weapons was manna from heaven for Assad. There is still no hard evidence that Assad personally ordered the Syrian military to use chemical weapons, and it would have been suicide for anyone associated with the Syrian government to risk US military intervention by using them again. Assad thus essentially traded his strategically useless chemical-weapons capability for the right to wage a ruthless counter-insurgency with impunity. That trade has obviously worked — there is almost no chance at this point that the rebels will overthrow Assad’s government, and it is equally unlikely that Assad will ever step down as part of some kind of negotiated peace agreement. Why would he? He is winning the war, and the West has essentially lost interest in the mass atrocities he has committed, and continues to commit, against innocent Syrian civilians. Indeed, the Syrian military is now routinely using incendiary weapons to kill civilians, yet the West remains silent.

But at least Assad no longer has chemical weapons. Success, right?

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/11/16/surprising-syria-destroying-chemical-weapons/

One Response

  1. If the purpose of the deal was to bring about the collapse of Assad’s regime, then no. But I doubt that this deal was designed to give a free kick to the al-Qaeda affiliates that seem to have benefited the most from Assad’s military reverses. Quite possibly, it was intended to ensure that the weapons could never fall into the hands of those organisations, and also Hezbollah, in the event that Assad’s regime failed completely. Which is not a worthless gain. There is at least one nuclear power that would have viewed such an event as an existential threat.

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