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