The Obama administration leaves the U.N. General Assembly this week with progress on two fronts of the Syrian conflict – a binding deal to seize chemical weapons and revived talk of a peace summit – though both developments come with serious caveats and won’t bring an end to hostilities anytime soon.
The U.N. Security Council late Friday approved a U.S.-Russian resolution that mandates the expedited removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal but stops short of threatening military action for noncompliance. Separately, Syrian opposition leaders signaled their willingness to participate in Geneva peace talks with officials from the Assad regime, albeit under conditions that might prove difficult to meet.
“There is no question this was a momentous (U.N. General Assembly), given two weeks ago we were at a standstill on our diplomatic efforts around Syria and would not have even thought this was possible,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “Now we are on the verge of passing the first binding resolution on Syria that will set the path for eliminating chemical weapons.”
With the backing of the five permanent members of the council, the resolution broke a deadlock that’s persisted for more than two years because Russia and the United States support opposite sides of Syria’s bloody civil war. Knowing that Russia would block any resolution that triggered military action should its ally Assad fail to comply, U.S. negotiators settled for diluted wording that authorizes unspecified punitive action for violations.
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In other words, if Assad is accused of another chemical attack, Russia could still use its veto power to drag out the Security Council’s determination of noncompliance, and then could block the harshest measures under the U.N. Charter’s Chapter 7. Of course, President Barack Obama already has argued that he doesn’t need Security Council approval to carry out military strikes against regime targets, though that threat of unilateral military force is much dimmer now that the U.S. has signed on to the international route.
“The worst-case scenario from the administration’s perspective would be if Assad does violate the resolution in some way and then the Russians stonewall at the Security Council. Then the administration is sort of back to square one in terms of what it does,” said Peter Spiro, who teaches international law at Temple University in Philadelphia and who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the NATO intervention in Libya.
Still, that doesn’t mean the resolution is insignificant, Spiro and other international law experts said. It would be hard for Russia to argue against findings of noncompliance as wrong or politically motivated because the resolution is written so that any violations would be confirmed first by experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world body that monitors the chemical weapons ban.
Gregory Fox, who teaches international law at Wayne State University in Michigan and has written extensively about the Security Council’s role in promoting democracy, said that the lack of an automatic trigger for military action isn’t necessarily a failing in the resolution because such automatic triggers are extremely rare. The only case he could think of was Resolution 678 against Iraq in 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait.
Fox said the resolution’s use of “must” and “shall” to outline what Syria is to do is consistent with a Chapter 7 resolution. He noted that sanctions as a punitive tool can work, arguing that Iran wouldn’t have made the landmark overtures seen this week at the United Nations without the toll sanctions have taken on the Islamic Republic’s economy.
Spiro noted one other strongpoint of the resolution is its passing mention of the need for “accountability” for the use of chemical weapons. That, Spiro said, could be a “really small baby step” to what one day could become a tribunal before the International Criminal Court.
To the Syrian opposition’s chagrin, the deal also would appear to protect against the risk of an abrupt regime change, which the administration wants to avoid given the lack of a viable, moderate opposition authority waiting in the wings. That gives the Assad government every incentive to comply fully with the resolution, gambling that the time and expenditure associated with the undertaking would dull the West’s political will to remove him from office.
“Assad still has an overwhelming tactical advantage,” Fox said. “He’s giving up his chemical weapons, but is not giving up his ability to fight this civil war, brutally.”
Syrian opposition leaders have criticized the U.S.-Russian deal, complaining of feeling sold out by the Obama administration’s narrowing of its strategic interests to the chemical weapons issue. More than 100,000 people have died and millions have been displaced, the opposition notes, and yet the U.S. entered into a deal with Russia that all but guarantees Assad job security for at least the next several months.
Ahmed Jarba, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the opposition faction recognized by the U.S. and Britain as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, adopted a slightly softer stance toward the resolution in remarks to reporters Friday in New York. He said the opposition would’ve preferred to have seen tougher language on consequences but that, overall, the group was “happy” with the resolution because it removes at least one tool from Assad’s vast arsenal.
However, Jarba added, there must be a parallel track to support the opposition’s fighting side, which was dealt a huge blow this week when five brigades that had been part of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command joined an Islamist bloc spearheaded by the al Qaida-allied Nusra Front.
Jarba said he and other leaders would reach out to the defecting groups to determine the reasons for their departure and whether the move was permanent.
Jarba said Friday that his group would be willing to meet with regime officials at a peace conference in Geneva, but that the clear goal must be a transition of power. He also added on a condition that would seem impossible to meet: the removal of all foreign fighters from Syria, not just forces from Assad allies Iran and Hezbollah, but also the jihadist fighters from within rebel ranks.
Any close observer of the conflict understands that the Islamist extremist fighters comprise the rebels’ most effective fighting force, and it is difficult to see who would expel them.