Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs & International Development, House of Commons, Canada

Featuring Andrew J. Tabler – February 12, 2014 – Washington Institute senior fellow Andrew Tabler addressed a Canadian parliamentary hearing on the latest developments in the Syrian war. The following are his concluding policy recommendations.

The days of easy foreign policy options in the Syria crisis are over. The matter is not just as simple as arming the rebels or reengaging with Assad, as the media often portrays it. But that does not mean the West is out of options. The war in Syria is likely to go on for years, and it is important that Canada and its allies explore multiple tracks to constrain, contain, and eventually bring the conflict to an end. I believe the best way to do so is by utilizing a more assertive, three-pronged approach, prioritized by tackling first threats first.

1. Rid Syria of chemical weapons and implement the Geneva Communique of 2012. Concern is growing in the U.S. government that the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpile “has seriously languished and stalled,” not just because Syria is predictably behind schedule, but also because Damascus is now demanding its chemical weapons sites be “inactivated” instead of “physically destroyed” as outlined under the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This development, especially following the regime’s consolidation of control in the western half of Syria, indicates that the Assad regime is dragging its feet on fulfilling the country’s obligations in order to achieve concessions from the United States and the London 11 countries concerning the formation of a transitional governing body in Syria.

In order to counter such pressure, the West should turn the tables on the Assad gambit and use Syria’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention as leverage to gain Assad’s compliance with a transition in Syria as outlined under the Geneva Communique of 2012. Fortunately for the United States and Canada, both Syria’s compliance with the rules set out by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Geneva Communique are enshrined in the same UN Security Council resolution — 2118 — which is enforceable by Chapter VII measures such as sanctions and the use of force following the passage of a subsequent Chapter VII resolution. In the likely event of a veto by Russia or China, the credible threat of additional sanctions and the use of force should be used to ensure Assad follows through on his obligations to give up Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Successful follow through could also help foster a real long-term transition in Syria based on, but not limited to, the Geneva Communique.

2. Push humanitarian access and evacuation. The humanitarian situation in Syria is rapidly worsening, and the Assad regime continues to use starvation campaigns that violate not only the Geneva Conventions but international humanitarian law as well. Canada should therefore continue to support the current proposed Security Council resolution concerning humanitarian access in Syria (which also emphasizes implementation of the Geneva Communique).

3. Combat terrorism. Combating terrorism should occur on multiple levels, including a plan in conjunction with regional allies to back moderate opposition elements at the expense of extremists. But that is not going to be enough. Plans should also be developed using offset assets (e.g., missiles) and drones to hit all designated terrorist groups operating in Syria, no matter what side they are fighting on, that are deemed to be aiming at Canadian, U.S., or international targets.

Such an approach would contain and constrain Assad on the use of chemical weapons, the possibility of their leakage to non-state actors and terrorist groups, and the regime’s use of starvation and siege as a form of warfare. It would also contain, alienate, and help eliminate terrorist groups operating in Syria among both the opposition and the constellation of forces helping to prop up Assad.Doubtless, the priorities on this list will likely change multiple times before the Syria crisis is over. But the basic pillars for present and future courses of action are there. –