Peace in Syria seems distant, but at a CEU event on Oct. 3, participants expressed optimism that a chemical weapons accord could open up opportunities.
CEU President and Rector John Shattuck told a roundtable on the Syrian conflict that the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta was a defining moment that might galvanize international action as much as the massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia had pushed the United States into action in 1995. A possible new opening between the United States and Iran might also improve the environment for diplomacy, he said.
Shattuck, who as a US Assistant Secretary of State helped negotiate the Dayton Accord that ended the conflict in Bosnia, also welcomed the chemical weapons agreement as a way to bring the United Nations back into efforts to resolve a conflict that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. UN inspectors have begun to remove chemical weapons after the deaths of as many as 1,400 civilians when rockets filled with a nerve agent were fired in Damascus on August 21.
But another panelist, University Professor Aziz Al-Azmeh of CEU’s Department of History, felt that the deal, brokered in secret by between Russia and the US, had helped the Syrian leader Bashir Al-Assad recover some legitimacy and that it had not significantly changed the complex dynamics of a conflict that involved all of Syria’s neighbors and the regime’s network of security agencies. This “tangled web” of militias supported by oil revenues and outside patrons was unlikely to unravel soon, according to the Syrian-born historian. A young population with high rates of unemployment meant that militias were an important source of employment. The incentives to fight were often more economic than religious or ideological, Al-Azmeh said.
Assistant Professor Xymena Kurowska and Associate Professor Erin Kristin Jenne of the Department of International Relations and European Studies both believed that a focus on chemical weapons risked diverting attention from the terrible death toll from conventional arms. Kurowska warned that the idea of the Responsibility to Protect had been harmed by both its conflation with a taboo on the use of chemical weapons and the false idea that R2P inevitably meant regime change.
Jenne was of the opinion that “the focus on chemical weapons is highly problematic given the illegitimacy of those making the demands,” citing the US government’s use of defoliants such as Agent Orange in Vietnam and white phosphorous in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. “It also ignores the deaths of thousands who have died by conventional weapons and buys time for the Assad regime to continue its conventional attacks,” she said.
Al-Azmeh took issue with Shattuck's contention that the chemical attack would finally lead to diplomatic progress. While the Srebrenica massacre had ultimately led to the delegitimization of the Serbian leadership, he argued, the response to the Syrian chemical attack had led to a strengthening of Assad as the key interlocutor for any peace process.
Kurowska said that Russia’s strategic interests in Syria were over-stated but that the Kremlin was deeply concerned about international interventions in civil conflicts, particularly as they believed western countries had vastly overstepped their mandate to protect civilians in Libya.
The roundtable was moderated by Robert Templer, director of the School of Public Policy’s Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery (CCNR).