Martin Lejeune/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

A pro-Assad poster in Damascus, Syria, September 29, 2013. The text reads: ‘Because we are Syrians, we love you. The conspiracy failed.’

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.


Yousef Homs/Reuters

Members of the Abu Mussa al-Ashaari brigade riding horses during a graduation ceremony for new recruits to the Free Syrian Army, eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, October 10, 2013

A negotiated peace may well be the best way to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state. Mindful of the disastrous precedent of Iraq, even many die-hard Assad opponents hope the basic structure of the state will remain intact, though without Assad and his senior lieutenants. A negotiated peace also would provide a chance of ensuring the security of all Syrians, without regard to the sectarian animosities now dividing the country.

But few believe a negotiated peace is anywhere near. Civilian deaths continue, making it urgent to find some way to curtail the slaughter in the interim. Most paths for doing so go through Moscow. The chemical weapons deal shows that when Russian President Vladimir Putin tells Assad to do something, he does it. In view of the rapidity of Lavrov’s acceptance of Kerry’s outline of a chemical deal, there seems to have been little if any negotiation with Damascus. Moscow simply set the terms. But if Moscow has the power to stop the killing by chemical weapons, why not also stop the slaughter of civilians by conventional means? Why not insist on a new “red line” against the deliberate and indiscriminate killing of civilians? Even if the fighting continues, why not force Assad to concentrate on limiting civilian casualties—to attack only the fish and leave the sea alone?

Russia has not given a remotely adequate answer. Conversations on the subject tend to turn to atrocities committed by the rebels and to the growing numbers of extreme Islamist groups in rebel ranks. These are serious concerns, particularly in light of Russian fears that Syria has become a magnet for disgruntled young men from the former Soviet Union who might eventually attack their home governments. But they cannot justify Syrian government atrocities.

Russia’s response to the August 21 chemical attacks—falsely blaming the rebels—illustrates the lengths to which it will go to avoid even criticizing Assad’s government. As Human Rights Watch showed, one type of rocket used, specially configured to deliver sarin, had never been seen before the Syrian conflict and had been filmed only in government, not rebel, hands. The estimated fifty-five liters of sarin in each rocket—amounting to a total of hundreds of liters being used—were well beyond the quantity that anyone claimed the rebels might possess. And the trajectory that could be traced for two of the rockets suggested a launching pad at a government military base adjacent to Assad’s presidential palace.

Rather than contend with the powerful evidence of government responsibility, Russia cited opposing claims made on fringe conspiracy websites and by a nun who is not an expert, was nowhere near the attack, and is a known apologist for Assad. The Russian arguments could be dismissed as ridiculous if the consequences were not so deadly. If Russia would stop preventing the UN Security Council from addressing Assad’s indiscriminate tactics, it would go a long way toward reducing the civilian toll.

Another way to deter further atrocities would be to enlist the International Criminal Court. Because Syria has not joined the court, it can be brought under the court’s jurisdiction only by action of the Security Council, where the threatened Russian veto stands in the way. The ICC would answer Russia’s concerns about rebel atrocities because it could prosecute serious crimes by all parties to the conflict, but that has not persuaded Russia, which called the suggestion “ill-timed and counterproductive.”

In this case, Moscow’s intransigence has been made easier by Washington’s own reluctance to press for involvement of the ICC, which the US has not joined. An early draft of the resolution on the chemical weapons deal included a reference to the ICC, but at US insistence it was removed before even being presented to the Russians, who then didn’t have to take responsibility for opposing it. Instead the Obama administration has been promoting a new tribunal devoted only to the crisis in Syria; this would presumably be established once the war ends, despite the considerable cost and complexity of creating such a tribunal and the loss of the deterrent effect of having a tribunal examining Syria now, as the killing proceeds.

This proposed alternative to the ICC might be attractive to Washington because it means ongoing prosecutions would not complicate prospective negotiations. Yet the experience of various countries is that prosecutions tend to force aside the most abusive figures, easing the path to peace; the Dayton accord for Bosnia provides one example. While Assad would undoubtedly not sign any deal that sends him to prison, many assume he will flee Syria anyway, taking refuge in a country like Russia or Iran that is not an ICC member and is likely to shield him from prosecution.

Another publicly unstated reason for the Obama administration’s lukewarm attitude toward the ICC is Israel—or more to the point, Israel’s settlements in the Golan Heights. A Security Council referral of Syria to the ICC would presumptively apply to its entire territory, including the Golan, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The ICC is empowered to prosecute the war crimes of an occupier that transfers its population to occupied territory. Israel would be vulnerable to such prosecution for its growing West Bank settlements, where it continues to move its population. That is among the reasons why Israel has been desperate to prevent Palestinian authorities from using their upgraded UN status to invoke ICC jurisdiction.

But the thirty-three Golan settlements for which the ICC might be given jurisdiction as part of a Syria referral have had little if any population growth among the 20,000 settlers there in the past two-and-a-half years. The prospect that the ICC prosecutor would pursue Israelis for having settled the Golan while her hands are full addressing mass atrocities in Syria is remote at best. But that sliver of a possibility is apparently the tail wagging the dog of US policy toward the ICC for Syria. The urgent need to deter more slaughter of Syrian civilians should not be subordinated to Israel’s most unlikely fears.

What then might be done to convince Russia to end its defense of Assad’s atrocities and to continue down the constructive path suggested by the chemical weapons deal at the UN and the statement in favor of humanitarian relief? One reason Moscow has been able to continue its intransigence for so long is that it has paid little price for it. For example, Russia supplies Assad’s killing machine through its official arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. One obvious way of pressuring Moscow to assume a more constructive role on Syria would be for the US and other countries to boycott Rosoboronexport. Despite a law prohibiting US purchases from the company, the Pentagon cited national security in March to waive this restriction. It purchased Russian helicopters for delivery to Afghanistan, because one legacy of the Soviet occupation is that Afghan forces are more familiar with Russian models. The British and French governments, for their part, continue to let Rosoboronexport advertise its wares at arms fairs outside London and Paris. In short, for the company and the government that controls it, it’s been business as usual.

Nor has the West used for Syria the kind of paralyzing banking sanctions that have been so effective in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. Prohibiting further financial relations with any bank—Russian or otherwise—that helped to finance arms for Syria would limit those purchases by forcing the Syrian government to rely on cash payments and barter. Similar sanctions could be used to put pressure on rebel groups that are responsible for widespread atrocities.

Western governments have failed to use public diplomacy to expose Russia’s support of Assad’s slaughter. There have been too few public condemnations of Moscow by Western leaders—nothing like the repeated denunciations and rebukes that Russia deserves and that might make a difference. Part of the problem is that Washington now depends on Moscow to help carry out the chemical weapons deal. The Obama administration evidently does not want to revive the difficult issue of enforcing the “red line” by disturbing its working relationship with Moscow. But the ongoing killing in Syria by conventional means should rule out complacency as an acceptable option.

The emerging non-Western powers also have an important part to play. Russia and China allowed the Security Council to move more aggressively to stop what many predicted would have been mass slaughter in Libya because they were politically isolated, both from the major Western powers and from the most important non-Western ones on the Security Council at the time: Brazil, India, and South Africa.

Yet the controversy surrounding the military intervention in Libya, where NATO was widely seen to have abused a mandate to protect civilians in order to accomplish regime change that was not a specified goal, has made non-Western governments reluctant to speak out about Syria. Several African governments, for example, complain incessantly that the ICC is too focused on Africa, but none of them has pressed to change that by advocating ICC involvement in Syria. The G20 summit of the world’s leading economies met in Russia in September without any non-Western power making a real effort to address the Syrian catastrophe.

As for the Arab League—the principal regional body—it has lately been too divided to be effective. It tends to operate by consensus, but the same sectarian divisions that inflame the Syrian conflict undermine collective action. While predominantly Sunni Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia funnel funds and arms to the rebels, predominantly Shia Iraq sides with Assad’s Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Meanwhile, repressive Arab countries from Sudan to Algeria are wary of any international action to curtail a dictator’s abuses. Other countries such as Egypt are too preoccupied with political turmoil at home to have much influence—or they are too small or weak to make a difference. The result is little pressure on Russia to change its ways.

As bad as things are in Syria, they could get worse. The conflict could become even more destructive than Lebanon’s in the 1980s, with the prospect of a decade or more of killing, displacement, and suffering. The longer the atrocities continue, the harder it will be to rebuild a highly diverse society. And more Syrians will be drawn to the brutality of the Islamic extremists who are in ascendancy among the rebels.

Russia may be indispensable for reining in Assad, but the rest of the world is essential for convincing Russia to do so. The chemical weapons deal represents the best opportunity since the war began to forge a unified international front to stop the slaughter in Syria. But that will happen only with a much more focused and consistent international effort—by both the West and others—to press Russia to live up to its responsibility to protect the people of Syria.

—October 23, 2013