(Swans - September 23, 2013) The international security concern arising from the Syrian Civil War is that a loss of control over its chemical weapons by the Syrian government could result in their falling into the hands of militias and terrorist groups, which could export them to cause terrible mischief elsewhere in the world. Putting these weapons under international control, and then destroying them, would be a cooperative activity that could be the nucleus around which a political settlement of the Syrian Civil War could be framed.
Nations and sub-national populations that may now differ on the Syrian Civil War might learn how to extend the technical cooperation that will be required of them to ensure the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile into the political realm so as to achieve a consensus for ending the violence and the continuing tragedies of that war.
On September 9, 2013, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad agreed to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile in exchange for avoiding attack by US forces and overthrow as a most likely result. This development was reported by The Washington Post of that day (compacting several quotes):
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday said it welcomed a Russian proposal to avert U.S. military strikes by having Damascus turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country would ask Syria to relinquish control of its chemical weapons to international monitors to prevent a U.S. strike. Lavrov also called on Syria to sign and ratify the Convention on Chemical Weapons, which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Syria "welcomes the Russian initiative," and "we also welcome the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is trying to prevent American aggression against our people." (1)
By September 14, the Syrian government had agreed to the Russian proposal to give up its chemical weapons in exchange for restraint by the U.S. and its like-minded allies (France and the U.K.) on launching an aerial attack on Syrian government forces and facilities. Such an attack had been urged by US president Obama as punishment for the alleged used of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian government, specifically the Ghouta attacks of August 21 (with perhaps up to 1,400 fatalities).
The bargain made by al-Assad's Syria was clear-cut: loss of its chemical warfare capability in exchange for political survival. The Syrian government really had no choice, but this decision was made palatable for it because of the diplomatic and physical protection the al-Assad regime gained from the Russian political investment in this scheme. Giving up its chemical weapons while under Russian diplomatic cover (an assured UN Security Council veto on any military intervention in Syria, similar to the U.S. UN-insurance for Israel) will allow it to survive to continue its battles against the rebel militias in Syria. So, the al-Assad regime clings to power for the present, despite the hot breath of America (and the U.K., and France, and Israel) on its back.
Once the Syrian government's chemical weapons are inventoried and secured by the UN disarmament forces (probably Russian troops), then any small chemical attacks that may occur would obviously be by rebels, and would give added justification for government assaults against them. Such incidents would also draw the attention of international chemical weapons disarmament troops in Syria, and that could only be to the disadvantage of rebel groups.
Because of the general breakdown of order everywhere in Syria, it also seems very likely that there have been many screw-ups in the deployment of force by each side (fog of war, and there are many sides). In the case of chemical attacks, it seems possible that some dispersals were beyond the expectations and control of the attackers. Examples of such possibilities are:
-- amateurs (rebels) mixing chemicals badly, or using too much, or generally unaware of what exactly they were dispersing and what its lethality would be;
-- and/or government artillery troops confusing sarin-loaded shells with regular high explosive shells during barrages, the artillery shells would look identical externally except for markings coded for type of warhead, not something the grunts firing the cannons would stop to look at, but which their officers are supposed to insure have been supplied correctly and are used according to the battle plan.
The largest chemical weapons attacks (e.g., Ghouta) are much more likely the work of government forces, which are far more capable than the rebels of mounting such attacks. One can imagine reasonable government motivation for doing so, coupled with a bit of panic, in order to maintain control of airfields and airports south and east of the Presidential Palace (which is in central Damascus), and routes east used to supply government troops in the countryside (rebel territory).
It seems the government has been using chemical weapons for some time in small deployments when it faced a stalemate in a fight for territory it viewed as strategically essential. It also seems that the political leadership may have used chemical weapons at times (and perhaps in the Ghouta attacks) as a morale booster for its own fanatics in the front lines stymied by entrenched opposition forces holding vital ground. Another psychological impact, but aimed at rebels and civilians, which might have been desired by a panicky government worried about the consequences of a collapse of its eastern front in Damascus is the message: if you think our Army will break and you can join a charge west to overrun Damascus (like the fall of Tripoli), beware, we will gas you in your tracks.
In the long term, it would not seem to be in the Syrian government's interest to launch chemical attacks, especially large scale attacks. However, in panicky short-term situations it might seem absolutely necessary. Once you survive the local panic, you have to deal with the ongoing international political fallout of your impulsive and reactive moves. A metaphor for this psychology is this: Desperate to stay afloat in a leaky boat on a stormy sea you drop the oars and jump up to plug a leak that pops open, and then get back to rowing toward shore until the next leak gushes.
The rebel groups that (probably) mounted chemical attacks were most likely motivated by the local short-term consideration of gaining an immediate tactical advantage, but perhaps also strategically of trying to frame the government so as to trip Obama's "red line" and bring in anti-government foreign military intervention.
While the rebel forces began with little technical capability to mount chemical warfare, this has increased as the war has progressed because of the capture of chemical plants, an influx of foreign supplies (some of which might include materials and chemicals that could be weaponized), and because of the large number of military defectors from the Syrian Army, some of whom would have technical skills and knowledge that could help produce a rebel chemical weapons arsenal. Also, rebel forces have very likely captured government weapons such as riot gear (tear gas) from police stations and arsenals they have overrun, or from government troops they have killed in battle.
It is possible (though unlikely) rebels have captured some government chemical munitions (which would normally be very heavily guarded, as they are Syria's nuclear equivalent). During the chaos of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, indigenous opposition forces (not NATO) captured Iraqi chemical artillery shells from unguarded or abandoned weapons depots (once hidden) not realizing what they were, and used them in their own artillery barrages. Some US troops were slightly contaminated as an indirect result.
So, now it appears that the Syrian government's chemical weapons will be put under international control, perhaps with some initial contention and uncertainties, and that the civil war will continue despite chemical weapons disarmament.
Today, while still only a hope that the restraint and cooperation required of international political competitors, in order to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons, will blossom into a political process to end -- reduce? -- the violence of the Syrian Civil War, that hope is just a little bit brighter.
GENEVA - The United States and Russia reached a sweeping agreement on Saturday [September 14, 2013] that called for Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by the middle of 2014 and indefinitely stalled the prospect of American airstrikes. The joint announcement, on the third day of intensive talks in Geneva, also set the stage for one of the most challenging undertakings in the history of arms control. "This situation has no precedent," said Amy E. Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "They are cramming what would probably be five or six years' worth of work into a period of several months, and they are undertaking this in an extremely difficult security environment due to the ongoing civil war." (3)
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)
1. Will Englund, Debbi Wilgoren, and Karen DeYoung, "Syria says it 'welcomes' Russian proposal on securing chemical weapons," The Washington Post, September 9, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/john-kerry-in-london-campaigns-for-world-to-support-military-strike-against-syria/2013/09/09/e8ad7a72-193d-11e3-80ac-96205cacb45a_story.html (back)