How should we make sense of the enforcement of a “red line” prohibiting one horrible weapon that has killed relatively few but leaving untouched the conventional weapons that the Syrian military has used to kill tens of thousands? It is easy to disparage a chemical weapons deal that aims to stop the method of slaughter responsible for fewer than 2 percent of Syria’s estimated 115,000 deaths resulting from the conflict over the past two-and-a-half years while leaving unimpeded the means used to slaughter more than 98 percent. “Red light for chemical weapons, green light for conventional weapons” would fairly summarize the approach.
Yet it would be wrong to belittle September’s last-minute diplomatic breakthrough in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly offhand remark that Syria could avoid US military action by surrendering its chemical weapons. To begin with, averting another US military intervention in the volatile Middle East is no small matter. Congressional support for President Barack Obama’s proposed military enforcement of what he called his “red line” was by no means certain, but Russia feared the not-unimaginable possibility that the Senate would give Obama the support he sought and that he would then act without waiting for the likely House rejection.
Moreover, awful as it has been to watch on average five thousand Syrians killed each month by conventional weapons, the August 21 chemical attacks on two sites in suburban Damascus killed an estimated 1,400 in a single night. Despite government denials, the research of Human Rights Watch and others confirmed that the chemical weapons had been fired by the Syrian military. Without an international response, there were good reasons to anticipate the terrifying prospect that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would deploy chemical weapons regularly.
So in the Syrian case, chemical weapons are different—and not simply because they are a long-banned indiscriminate weapon, as Kerry pointed out in making the case for a military response. After all, the United States keeps indiscriminate weapons in its arsenal—some, such as land mines and cluster munitions, that are banned by treaties the US has not ratified, and some, such as nuclear weapons, that are not explicitly outlawed. Rather, as Assad showed, chemical weapons are also different because of the extraordinary civilian toll they can exact.
In the cool nighttime air of late August, the heavy vaporized sarin seeped into the basements where many women, children, and other civilians had taken refuge from the fighting around them. A basement ordinarily is a good place to avoid rockets and artillery exploding above, but they turned deadly that night.
The Syrian government will undoubtedly try to squirrel away some chemical weapon capacity from its vast arsenal, but with Russia, its main political patron and military supplier, backing the deal, it would be folly for Syria to use chemical weapons again in anything like the magnitude of the August 21 attacks. And Assad must know that Iran, Syria’s second most important ally, is particularly sensitive to the use of sarin, having suffered, along with the Iraqi Kurds, Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks in the 1980s—although like Moscow, Tehran could not bring itself to publicly blame the recent attacks on the Syrian government. The killing of civilians by other means continues, but it was no small feat to draw the line at this particularly insidious form of slaughter.
The chemical weapons deal’s greatest impact may be diplomatic. One frustrating element of the United Nations Security Council’s structure is that it permits the five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to use their vetoes to block action for any reason, partisan or parochial, even in the case of mass atrocities. The United States, for example, routinely uses its veto to protect Israel from criticism for abuses committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Russia has used its veto to obstruct any significant effort to address the Syrian slaughter since peaceful protests begin in March 2011. Whether the issue was condemning atrocities, imposing sanctions or an arms embargo, or referring Syria to the International Criminal Court, Russia’s response was a stated or threatened nyet. China seconded Russia’s intransigence, but few believe Beijing would have blocked international action without Moscow taking the lead. A faded power with an economy dependent on the sale of fossil fuels, Russia seemed intent on exploiting its moment of diplomatic significance for all it’s worth, using its veto to protect one of its few remaining allies in the region.
This stalemate ended with the chemical weapons deal, when the council finally adopted a resolution demanding compliance with Lavrov and Kerry’s accord. Even then, Russia refused to approve a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows enforcement through sanctions or military action. But with Russia standing behind the deal, and the resolution containing plenty of mandatory language, Assad is likely to comply. The Nobel Peace Prize–winning international arms experts now deployed in Syria to locate, neutralize, and supervise the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal report reasonable government cooperation so far.
Within days, this newly constructive mood on the Security Council extended to the humanitarian sphere. The chemical attack was extraordinary for the weapon used but otherwise typical of the way the Syrian military has waged war. As rebel forces have seized large swathes of Syrian territory, the Assad government has responded by indiscriminately and often deliberately attacking civilians living there. In part this reflects the classically abusive counterinsurgency strategy of draining the sea to catch the fish: make life so miserable for civilians that they flee, leaving rebel forces exposed, with no population to hide among or functioning economy from which to acquire supplies. In part this strategy also seems designed to send a message to Syrians throughout the country: this is what your life will be like if the rebels prevail where you live, so you had better support Assad.
Syrian troops have thus used rockets, artillery, cluster bombs, incendiary weapons, fuel-air explosives, and aerial bombardment to indiscriminately attack populated areas in rebel-held territory and to target functioning bakeries, medical facilities, and schools. The Syrian forces have also deployed more ordinary weapons, such as the guns and knives used to execute 248 civilians in a Sunni antigovernment enclave in early May, as documented by Human Rights Watch.
On a smaller scale, rebel factions have also committed atrocities, among them such increasingly powerful Islamic extremist groups as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, both of which have links to al-Qaeda, and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Most egregiously, they are partly responsible for the systematic killing of 190 civilians and abduction of 200 in August by five Sunni rebel groups in progovernment villages of Latakia province, also recently reported by Human Rights Watch. There have also been unconfirmed allegations of limited rebel use of sarin.
The results of such atrocities have been disastrous, with an estimated 40,000 civilians killed and the destruction of much of the country’s basic infrastructure. Millions of civilians have fled their homes because of this calculated misery: more than two million to surrounding countries where they are a large and growing burden, particularly on the fragile societies of Lebanon and Jordan, and nearly five million within Syria. Close to seven million Syrians in the country now depend on humanitarian assistance for basic necessities.
The Assad government has acted with callous disregard for them, placing bureaucratic obstacles in the way of desperately needed relief. It has refused to register all but a handful of the most capable and experienced international aid agencies. It has held up urgently needed assistance in customs, and required multiple official sign-offs that doom aid shipments to extreme delays. Most harmful, it has insisted that aid be sent from government-held territory. The most direct route to many of those in need would be across the borders of neighboring Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon, but Damascus insists on circuitous routes that require aid workers to travel up to ten times farther through dozens of checkpoints. As a result, only a trickle of aid reaches civilians in rebel-held territory. The proliferation of rebel groups, some hostile to foreign assistance, has also impeded aid delivery.
Some governments, including the United States, have begun quietly funding private humanitarian groups to provide cross-border assistance. But the quantities required are too great, and the threats of violence too grave, for private groups to meet these demands on their own. A major UN-led operation is needed.
The United Nations will ordinarily not undertake such operations without the consent of the government whose population requires assistance. The Syrian government has been loath to permit such cross-border humanitarian aid because that would undermine its efforts to make life miserable in rebel-held areas. The UN Security Council could order Syria to allow cross-border assistance, but through the end of September, Russia would have none of it. Nyet prevailed.
The chemical weapons accord provided an opportunity to address these humanitarian needs. Just five days after the Security Council resolution affirming the deal, on September 27, Russia accepted a Security Council presidential statement urging Syria to “take immediate steps to facilitate the expansion of humanitarian relief operations,” including, “where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries.” A presidential statement is less authoritative than a formal resolution, but that should not obscure the fact that Russia, Syria’s most important ally, has now effectively ordered it to allow such aid. The Security Council asked the UN secretary-general to report back on how the statement was being implemented, opening the way for additional steps by the council should blockages persist.
The United Nations should seize this opportunity, make concrete demands for access by specific deadlines, and report any further resistance promptly to the Security Council. Unfortunately, Valerie Amos, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, has remained vague in public about the main obstacles to distributing humanitarian aid. Apparently fearful that blaming the Syrian government would jeopardize UN access to government-controlled areas, Amos has too often resorted to anodyne statements about the problem. One can only hope that, with the Security Council now behind it, the UN will find a more assertive voice.
Yet even if the disastrous humanitarian situation begins to improve, no serious effort is underway to stop the killing of civilians by conventional weapons. As front lines have hardened, the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths has dropped, but some two thousand of the recent average monthly death toll of five thousand have been civilians. What can be done to stop this slaughter?
The Obama administration’s primary answer has been peace talks. Kerry has revived efforts to convene “Geneva II” negotiations—a follow-up to the accord negotiated in June 2012 under UN and Arab League auspices that called on the warring parties to agree to a cease-fire and begin a political transition. Yet prospects for Geneva II are not encouraging. The rebel groups are not unified and say they won’t negotiate with Assad. Assad, in turn, says he won’t negotiate with most of the rebel groups.