Russian Bid For Syria: A Lifeline For Assad?

In March 2011 the despot Bashar al-Assad probably never imagined that a small demonstration would eventually turn into an insurrection. The Arab Spring has paved the way for political transition in Tunisia, Libya and perhaps more questionably in Egypt. Concurrently, it also provoked the Syrian people against the authoritarian regime of Assad. The ongoing civil war has intensified a lot: the whole world has seen the abhorrent images of chemical weapons attacks. This galvanized major powers (the US, France and Great Britain) to take military action against the Assad regime but on 29 August 2013, the British House of Commons voted against possible military intervention which only left France and the US as the main backers of the military option. 

Syria’s regime is one of a handful of UN members – including Angola, North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan – who are not a party to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling on the Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction drawn up in 1992 (administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or OPCW). Israel (which is thought to possess chemical weapons) and  Myanmar  are signatories to the Convention but since they have not ratified it the OPCW considers them to be “non-member states”.

Russia’s proposal for placing Syrian chemical weapons under international supervision has minimized the possibility of military intervention in Syria. Equally, it is also true that the Director-General of the OPCW Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü received a letter on 12 September 2013 sent by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Mr Walid al-Muallem, informing him of the decision by the Syrian Government to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and of the transmission of a legislative decree to the UN Secretary General.

As we know, Syria, which was once the beating heart of Arab nationalism, is now a smoldering wreck. Given that chemical weapons have been used, the conflict can be distinguished from other Arab states which are a part of the Arab Spring. From what we can see on our television screens, Syria’s civil war continues to dominate the foreign office agendas of global and regional powers such as the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. Being the Damascus regime’s most important international ally, Russia continues to propagate its pro-Assad stance; for these tactics Moscow has therefore been subjected to huge criticism by the West. Consequently, perhaps to diminish its own culpability, the Kremlin has proposed an offer to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control. Yet, the Russian president Vladimir Putin continues to justify Assad’s position by claiming:

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons.

For the British (who voted against their Government’s call for military intervention in Syria), the proposal was welcomed by Prime Minster David Cameron who – despite Putin’s recent denouncement of the British as an insignificant political force on the world stage – responded to the Russian offer by saying if:

Syria were to put its chemical weapons beyond use under international supervision, clearly that would be a big step forward and should be encouraged… If it’s a genuine offer, it should be genuinely looked at.

Arguably, compared to the British (in whose country asylum is virtually guaranteed to Syrians) and French, the Americans are keener for a military intervention in Syria.  Previously, the Americans backed various UN resolutions calling for sanctions against the Assad regime’s elites but the Russians and Chinese vetoed those efforts. However, now, recent developments over the past few days suggest that the US will agree to the Russian bid. This possibility is indicated in President Obama’s remark:

It’s certainly a positive development when the Russians and Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons.

One can observe that the Russian proposal primarily dealt with the usage of chemical weapons but Russia has not taken moral or political stand against the massacre which is being carried out by the ruthless dictator. Sadly, by dwelling on issue of chemical weapons, the Russian proposal fails to address the end of the ongoing brutal military massacre of innocent civilians. It may be likely that, regardless of crazy Syrian and Russian denials about the use of chemical weapons by the regime, Assad will not be allowed to keep his stockpile of chemical weapons.

Following American and Russian chemical weapons talks between American Secretary of State John Kerry an Russian Foreign Minsiter Sergei Lavrov,  it appears that even the American are now amenable to a “negotiated settlement” which would search out “common ground” between the parties. Another meeting in a month’s time is planned. Assad himself has said that any agreement would come “into force one month after it is signed”. Kerry, however, has warned that the talks cannot be “used as a stalling tactic.”

So, by throwing in a lifeline, Russia has bought her ally some time. And fresh evidence of mass killing is emerging all the time.

But, chemical weapons or otherwise, allowing the slaughter of innocents to continue is a shameful thing for the human race and all world leaders need to do more. They should stop procrastinating and do more to throw the dying people of Syria a lifeline. A hundred thousand have died and millions have been displaced.

Update 15 September 2013: Of course the very latest is that the US and Russia have a deal and the Syrians have to reveal the locations of their chemical weapons within a week. The Free Syrian Army, which sees the “deal” as a dilatory tactic, has rejected the deal and the US is maintaining that if the negotiated option is unsuitable then it reserves  the right to a military strike. Kerry is saying that nothing less than “full compliance” will do and there will be “no avoidance”.

The author, Jaffer Abbas Mirza, is a researcher at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs and a student of the Department of International Relations, University of Karachi. He can be followed on twitter @mirzajaffer ; email –

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Filed under Discussion, Pakistan Horizon, Politics, Syria, The Arab Spring, The Middle East

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