April 12, 2018
During the UN Security Council debate on Syria on April 9, Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “What we are dealing with today is not about a spat between the United States and Russia. This is about the inhumane use of chemical agents on innocent civilians…” But, it was about a spat between the two powers. Nobody disputes the fact that the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives and displacement of millions in Syria has been a crime of epic proportions. However, Ambassador Haley’s stressing her concern for innocent civilians, and hundreds and hundreds of similar high-level statements of compassion by other countries during the last eight years have been anything but sincere. Regrettably, ending the suffering has never been the top priority for external powers involved in Syria’s proxy wars. These countries were after securing their interests, achieving their strategic/ideological/sectarian objectives, even trying to make sure that Syria is no more. And at this stage, Russia and Iran with decades-old strong links to Damascus seem to be on the winning side. At least, they are in a much stronger position on the battlefield.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria was a game changer. It showed that Russia remains a major actor in the Middle East and has the hard power to make a difference on the ground. However, that could not be the end of a success story. Since President Putin had always been a strong critic of U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya for having led to chaos and devastation, Russia had to show its peacemaking capacity and the Astana process was launched to help accomplish that on Russia’s terms. This is one of the reasons why in recent years Moscow has paid special attention to keeping its lines of communication open with Arab countries as well as Israel as shown by numerous high-level visits. Historically, however, Syria has been the only regional country to continually offer Russia military bases. For example, Russia has operated a military base in Tartus for more than four decades. In the mid-1990s U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher paid two dozen visits to Damascus but was unable to move father Assad. In brief, Russia will not give up its only foothold in the Middle East and President Assad will continue to depend on Russia as its principal supporter. The only relief to be brought to the Syrian people would be moving forward with the country’s political transition and for that Russia-U.S. dialogue remains the only path.
On April 7, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was subjected to an alleged chemical weapons attack. This raised Russia-West tensions to a higher high level, particularly coming soon after the Salisbury incident. Once again, there were conflicting messages coming out of Washington. The UN Security Council debates proved to be inconclusive as usual. Thus, some alarmed by these developments started speculating on the possibility of a confrontation fraught with risks between Russia and the U.S. and its allies, namely the U.K. and France. In October 2012 President Assad had said that Syria’s downfall would put the entire Middle East on fire. This latest conflagration has again proved him right.
Since the first reports of alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been gathering information from all available sources and analyzing it. At the same time, according to the OPCW, Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, has looked into the possibility of deploying of a fact-finding mission team to Douma to establish facts surrounding these allegations. Thus, on Tuesday, the OPCW has requested the Syrian Arab Republic to make the necessary arrangements for such a deployment. This coincided with a request from Syria and Russia to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma. Later, it was said that the team is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly.
Today, the OPCW announced that the “Report on Technical Assistance Requested by the United Kingdom” regarding the Salisbury incident had been transmitted to London. The results of the analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories confirmed the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury. The U.K. had asserted that the toxic chemical used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter was a military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok. Although the Report did not say who manufactured the nerve agent or where or when it was created, it certainly puts Moscow in a corner.
All countries involved in the Syrian conflict would be wise to wait for the report of OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission on Douma. New military interventions will not bring about dramatic changes on the battlefield but only add to the suffering. With Brexit and Chancellor Merkel’s internal political challenges, President Macron seems determined to seize every opportunity to take the European central stage. Thus, he has been outspoken also on Syria. However, the U.K. and France have a controversial history in the region and would be well-advised to refrain from hasty moves that could further complicate the situation.