This past Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was “pleased” that international experts had begun the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. But at the same time, he stressed that Bashar al-Assad’s early compliance needed to continue – a clear indication that while the process has gotten off to a good start, there is still a long way to go.
Mr. Kerry was right to call this a “good beginning,” but the State Department was also smart to hold its praise for Mr. Assad. Recent history suggests that the Assad regime will not live up to any agreements with the United Nations unless there are repercussions for stonewalling or obstruction. Washington and the UN both need to take Assad’s past track record into account by making it clear that there will be strong consequences if the Syrian government slows down its compliance. For the Obama administration, that means keeping the threat of military force alive, even if that is not its favorite option.
The task ahead for the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons cache – would be difficult under peaceful circumstances. But the job will be even more difficult in the middle of a raging civil war, where UN and other experts must find, secure, and destroy all of these weapons by a looming June 2014 deadline. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged how unprecedented the task will be: UN inspectors have been the targets of gunfire in the past. Indeed, the dangers of carrying out the disarmament plan is not lost on anyone, even Secretary Kerry, who, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, managed to cobble together this chemical weapons agreement.
The most frustrating aspect of the US-Russian initiative, however, is that the entire enterprise depends upon the full cooperation and transparency of the Assad regime – a government that has flouted every single agreement that it has signed with regional mediators throughout the two-and-a-half-year conflict.
During that time, Assad has shown a willingness to violate agreements almost as soon as his regime signs them. This allows him to demonstrate to the world that he is both willing to embrace diplomacy by taking steps to deescalate the violence, all the while obfuscating on his commitments, dragging out the process, and using the very violence that he creates as an excuse to impede UN inspectors from performing their mandate.
In November 2011, when the conflict in Syria was not yet a civil war, the Arab League struck an agreement with the Syrian government in the hope of cutting back what was then a cycle of violence by the security forces on peaceful protesters. Under the plan, the Syrian Army was supposed to withdraw its soldiers and security personnel from populated cities around the country; release political prisoners from the country’s jails; and launch a negotiating process that would include defectors and opponents of the Assad regime.
It took less than three months for the Arab League to figure out that Damascus was not living up to its obligations. Indeed, the violence worsened to such an extent that the Arab League determined that it simply was too dangerous to continue its peacemaking mission.
The next opportunity for Assad to show his sincerity was in February and March of 2012, when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan – appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to serve as the UN-Arab League mediator on Syria – proposed a six-point plan that would establish a ceasefire and commit Assad to allow peaceful protests. Like the Arab League’s efforts almost two months earlier, Mr. Annan’s efforts proved to be a waste of time.
After a few days of relative quiet, the killings and Syrian Army operations continued at a pace that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights predicted resulted in the deaths of an additional 5,000 civilians. Given the UN Security Council’s lack of an enforcement mechanism for the ceasefire plan, nothing else should have been expected from the Assad regime.
But it was perhaps the October 2012 Eid al-Adha ceasefire put into place by UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi that fully revealed how untrustworthy the Assad regime was. Almost as soon as the short-term ceasefire during the Muslim holiday was announced, violations by forces loyal to the Assad regime were recorded in all areas of the country. Regime jets targeted rebel-held neighborhoods and the opposition responded with car bombings on government buildings.
In fact, on the last day of the supposed ceasefire, the Syrian air force conducted 60 air strikes, with activists recording at least 500 deaths during the Eid holiday.
In all of these cases, the Syrian government actively signaled its willingness to abide by the respective accords, only to purposely violate them over the following days. And without the threat of penalty hanging over his head, Assad was comfortable enough to do so, realizing that the Security Council would not retaliate with sanctions or force.
It is encouraging that Assad seems willing to uphold the agreement on chemical weapons thus far. And the fact that the US and Russia were able to come to an agreement on an issue pertaining to the Syrian civil war indicates that there is a common objective to rid the Middle East of a terrible weapon of mass destruction.
Yet unless the UN Security Council or the US itself is willing to enforce the Kerry-Lavrov deal with accountability and the threat of repercussions if and when Syria drags its heels or fails to fully uphold its obligations, the chances that Assad will act like a responsible statesman are low.
The White House appears to understand that military action is still needed as an option to keep the disarmament process going. The fact that the Assad regime is fulfilling its end of the bargain is an encouraging step forward. Yet with Assad in a fight for his very survival, the United States and its partners in the international community must have a back-up plan in the event that this early breakthrough begins to close.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East researcher for Wikistrat, Inc., and an independent analyst.