GENERATING DIALOGUE : A U.S.-EU Alliance to Hold Syria & Russia Accountable

Magnus Norel – September 26, 2013 – FIKRA FORUM – The chemical weapons attacks in Damascus on August 21 (perpetrated by Syrian government forces according to all available evidence) triggered a chain of events around the world. Swift policy changes and equally swift high level meetings managed to avoid a U.S.-led military response, instead leading to an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to find and destroy all Syrian chemical weapons within a time-span of 8 months. The dust has not completely settled yet and it is too early to write the post-scriptum. But one issue that has not been properly addressed is how the U.S. and its European allies can salvage some cooperative efforts and successfully guide the process to actually rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons. It is highly likely that left to its own devices and with Russian support, the Assad regime will use every trick in the book to stall, hinder, and avoid a complete and thorough process.

First, in order to ensure that this opening is used intelligently it is paramount that the threat of a possible military strike is still there. Assad will hardly play along unless the sword hangs above his head. This, however, will mean severe difficulties in shepherding a resolution through the UN Security Council. Russia has already indicated that the threat of a strike must be removed from the agenda, and will likely veto any such attempts. It is therefore necessary that the U.S. and its allies stick to their guns and present a unified stand that, if need be, a military strike to enforce the agreement is still on the books, whether there is a resolution or not. Despite an obvious reluctance on the part of the Europeans to use violence, there is an understanding that it may become necessary.

There are some real challenges for such an alliance to hold. The run-up to the British parliamentary vote against sanctioning even the idea of a British role in a U.S.-led military strike against Syria showed a Europe that is increasingly wary of getting involved even in a very limited military strike. Of the three major powers in Europe – UK, Germany, and France – Berlin has consistently refused any military involvement and that will not change. France, despite Hollande’s initial support of a U.S. strike, has backtracked over the past few weeks, and it is far from clear that, should it come to military action, Paris would back or take part in a strike. Finally, the swiftness with which David Cameron threw in the towel after the defeat in parliament probably means that for any British participation in a military strike, there will have to be either another chemical weapons attack, or a rather blatant attempt by the Assad regime to stall the process. Perhaps resistance can be overcome by going down the diplomatic road, only turning to military means as a last resort. But that is currently far from assured, and in any regard, the reluctance to any military action is in plain view, making it even more difficult to support the political process with a credible military threat.

Thus, at present, the best way to work around that, and to keep a robust U.S.-European alliance, is to beef up and hasten humanitarian aid to the opposition (the moderate opposition) and to advertise and continue the training and arming of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units in Jordan, a process that is already under way. That would show Syria as well as Russia that there still is an outside force to be reckoned with.

Second, time is of the essence. There must be no let-up in the agreed upon time frame. Already, the first deadline (whereby Syria was to present a list of where the chemical weapons are stored and manufactured) has not been met. Any negligence on the part of the international community to follow through here will present Syria (and Russia) with incentives to stall the rest of the process. Reliable sources have already noted that the Syrian regime has tried to move chemical weapons outside the country. For Russia and Putin, if this high stakes game succeeds, the Syrian regime can continue to defy and stall the international community, keeping Russia as an indispensable player in whatever political process follows the present agreement. Russia under Putin has skillfully maintained the political initiative and is undoubtedly counting on continued European passivity to keep that initiative.

Lastly, it is very much in line with stated U.S. and EU policies to take the perpetrators of war crimes to task for the crimes committed. Even though this will present obstacles to the process (a process which, by necessity, means working to some extent with the Syrian regime), it must be kept part of long-term policy strategy. Not doing so would risk completely destroying any vestiges of credibility left in the U.S. and Europe.

Dr. Magnus Norell is an adjunct scholar at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.