17:00 PM

Pursuing the Diplomatic Option on Syria

In the aftermath of the August 21 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, a residential area near the Syrian capital of Damascus, Washington seemed to be on the path to launch a military strike against the government of Bashar Al-Asad. During the two weeks after the attack, it seemed from the rhetoric of the Obama administration that an American air strike was inevitable. During this crisis, I wrote a piece for the London Guardian on September 1, which I ended with the following suggestions:  A wiser course for Washington is to try to influence Russia, which has been keen to avoid a military showdown. The Syrian state is pursuing its civil war with a military force dependent almost entirely on Soviet-era or Russian arms.Syria's WMD arsenal can be delivered by artillery shells, rockets, or from aircraft that are produced in Russia.Russia and the US had discussed a political solution that would bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to a conference in Geneva to search for a negotiated solution to the conflict. But this was forgotten as the crisis escalated over the last couple of months. Perhaps by Washington choosing not to carry out a military strike, the Syrian government will be induced to negotiate.To my surprise, my naïve hope materialized. While comments on my article argued that Syria and Russia would not negotiate over this issue, in the end a military strike was averted when Moscow and Damascus approved a plan that would result in Asad government ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997. My hope for the resolution of this conflict through a diplomatic initiative was based on my training as a historian and my instinct to place America’s proposed strike in a historical context. Once I looked back on the past of military strikes against weapons of mass destruction facilities, I came to the conclusion that such options rarely are successful in the long term.For example, in 1981 Israel successfully bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Nevertheless, this attack only convinced the Iraqi state, including its scientists, to continue with its nuclear program as a means of denying Israel a victory. After 1981 the program’s nuclear sites were placed in well protected structures underground and the Soviets taught the Iraqis how these structures could evade detection. It was not until after the 1991 Gulf War the extent of Iraq’s nuclear program was known. During the 1991 Gulf War aerial sorties were conducted against Iraq’s WMD sites over a span of six weeks. Yet UN weapons inspectors on the ground after the war still discovered both facilities and munitions that survived the air campaign. Even the targeted assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists in the last couple of years have had unintended consequences. The number of engineering students in Iran who changed their specialty to nuclear engineering only soared after these assassinations.  Even though the diplomatic solution is being pursued, the Obama administration has insisted that the military option could still be pursued. Past precedent suggest this would be a costly and ineffective action. Nevertheless, as a historian I realized that the process of disarming Syria will also be challenging based on my research on the disarmament on Iraq under UN auspices after 1991. First, disarmament would require Syria to hand over an inventory of its entire WMD arsenal, and if Iraq serves as an indication, Asad might not be forthcoming in revealing the scope of Syria’s program. The US would likely want information on Syria's WMD scientists and access to facilities, which Syria would declare a violation of its sovereignty. The US would probably argue that Syria's Scud arsenal be destroyed since they can deliver WMDs over long distances, which Damascus would be loathe to do since it is its only deterrent against Israel. While it still remains more effective than military strikes, disarmament through inspections will be a complex process.  Disarmament will only solve one aspect of a complicated conflict raging in Syria. The US, Russia, and Syria should use this opportunity to also create a channel to find a political solution to the Syria civil war, that would include elements made up of the Syria opposition forces.As I wrote in my Guardian piece, “If that were to occur, the civilians who were killed in Ghouta would not have died in vain.”