Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Dissecting Syria turbulence


This has been a turbulent two weeks. One's attitudes have oscillated through anger and despair to a glimpse of hope and ended with renewed confidence in Obama's values and intentions. The principal issue being debated has been whether a US military strike against Syria was justified by Security Council deadlock. On 6 September Obama argued that: 'Syria's escalating use of chemical weapons threatens its neighbours. ... But more broadly, it threatens to unravel the international norm against chemical weapons embraced by 189 nations.'

The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997. The US is still in the process of destroying its chemical weapons to comply with it. Obama said in 2012 that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a red line which would require an international response. Failure to respond to this use would indicate that there are no consequences from using these weapons of mass destruction. Obama said that he would 'greatly prefer' to work through the UN but that when this is impossible the US has to look for other approaches to 'enforcing international norms and international law'.

It was fairly quickly apparent that Obama was not winning sufficient Congressional or domestic support for a politically justifiable military strike on Syria or internationally at the G20 meeting in St Petersburg. Maureen Dowd wrote in the NYT on 8 September that:

... his lack of enthusiasm came across. He was not thundering from the top of the moral ramparts. He made his usual nuanced, lawyerly presentation, talking about the breach of international 'norms'. It's a weak, wonk word. Norms don't send people to the barricades.

So he needed political support and on 7 September adopted the democratic tactic of asking Congress for authorisation. But he acted as though the commentators were right: if he lost a Congressional vote he would be diminished. He sent his staff out as passionate advocates for a strike. Samantha Power said on Monday morning radio that when the Security Council is deadlocked and retribution is necessary, the Security Council should be by-passed. The shocking impression was that there was little evidence that the Administration had looked for alternatives to war. Security Council deadlock was described as sufficient justificaformtion for the habitual American military action. Diplomatic imagination seemed to have no role.

On 9 September John Kerry said in response to a journalist's question about whether there was anything the Syrian Government could do to stop a US attack: 'Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.'

This was initially perceived as bizarre, but within four hours Sergie Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, said that he would propose to Assad that he hand over his chemical weapons to the international community for destruction. Obama swiftly suspended the proposed strike and accepted negotiations with Russia. Not only was the missile strike further delayed but the Congressional vote could be suspended. By Wednesday Kerry and Lavrov were meeting in Geneva.

The striking, little known fact, is that this option had been informally discussed for a year. It was first raised at the G20 Summit in Mexico in 2012 (Financial Times, 14 September). Kerry and Lavrov had talked about it several times during the last year. Putin and Obama had discussed it briefly at St Petersburg. European foreign ministers had talked with Kerry about it the day before. US officials thought it wouldn't work unless Russia persuaded Assad to negotiate, and presumed that they could not. Putin however invited the Syrian Foreign Minister to Moscow. Putin may have acted because it was likely that the UN chemical weapon inspectors would find clear evidence of their use on 21 August which would greatly strengthen US motivation for an attack.

On Friday Ban Ki-moon said that the impending report would be 'overwhelming' in showing the chemical weapons were used. He also said, sotto vocce, that Assad 'has committed many crimes against humanity'. A well informed senior official told me on Saturday that the Syrians had used chemical weapons a total of nine times. A UN Commission of Inquiry which is monitoring human rights in Syria also reported at the end of the week that 'Syrian government forces are systematically attacking hospitals and medical staff members and denying treatment to the sick and wounded from areas controlled or affiliated with the opposition' (New York Times, 14 September).

The Kerry/Lavrov agreement announced on Friday is a breakthrough. It is a detailed plan for the speedy accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons, with provision for enforcement by the UN Security Council. Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, said in a media statement on 14 September:

The plan ... outlines a thorough series of key steps on an accelerated schedule and provides for enforcement through the UN Security Council ... While there are many further, challenging steps ahead, the agreement is an unprecedented breakthrough ... 

Gary Quinlan, Australia's UN Ambassador told me yesterday that the Syrians have taken the first required implementation action by sending a letter acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention which was received by the UN Secretary-General on Saturday. A Security Council resolution is being drafted and negotiated by the P3 and Russia and that process will continue through the week.

Not only is the agreement unprecedented; the process through which it was reached is too. Does this mean that the Americans have been bested by Russia? Is Obama diminished by the process so far? Some are arguing yes to both those questions, but to many others including me the answer is no, because the outcome so far is what Obama really wanted. Yet another Middle East war with American participation is highly unlikely. The New York Times editorialised that the agreement to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal is remarkably ambitious and offers a better chance of deterring this threat than the limited military strikes that President Obama was considering'. The questions will not be answered conclusively until the whole journey is completed.

The central question is not about international political status but about whether one successful tough negotiation on one element of the Syrian horrors can lead to others which would reduce or end the conflict? 'There's reason to hope this cooperation will help advance an overall peace settlement for Syria' (New York Times, 16 September).

What a time for Australia to be chairing the Security Council! Of course the Mission’s role is tightly constrained, but nevertheless it is significant. My impression is that our diplomats are working with professional skill, commitment to the rule of law — that is, the centrality of the Security Council — and to peaceful conflict resolution not only in Syria but also in the other score of countries which are actively on the Council’s agenda.


John Langmore headshotJohn Langmore is an Australian academic and politician. He was a member of the Australian House of Representatives for Labor from 1984 to 1996. He has published several books on public and international policy, including Dealing with America: The UN, the US and Australia.

Topic tags: John Langmore, SyriaRussia, Putin, Geneva Convention, chemical weapons, Assad, UN Security Council



submit a comment

Existing comments

This is fascinating on-the-spot reportage from UN new York, and it nicely complements Fr Hamilton's excellent essay on the just war question, also published today. John Langmore is cautiously optimistic that diplomacy may work this time to prevent the US widening this war. I agree - it is a beginning that might open the door to further progress towards restoration of peace in Syria and the return home of 3 million refugees who have fled their homes. A bad or mediocre government like Assad's is better than this terrible civil war which is causing so much human suffering there. If US and Russia could agree on policy goals for restoring peace in Syria, progress towards peace could happen there quite quickly. I am thinking of the successful UN-brokered Cambodian peace process in 1991-93 - Syria needs that kind of imaginative UN-based diplomacy now. Australia should support such moves particularly during our present year of membership of the UN Security Council.

tony kevin | 18 September 2013  

It is to be strongly hoped that the Russian sponsored initiative for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons is successful. Peace on the ground in Syria will be harder to achieve. The conflict between the Ba' athist government and the various elements opposed to it continues unabated with Russia supplying weapons to the first and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to the latter. It is reported that 50% of those fighting against the regime belong to Salafi jihadi groups whose prime aim is to establish an Islamic State with Sharia Law. They would not, I believe, be interested in peace. The Free Syrian Army, made up and led mainly by deserters from Assad's forces, who were alienated by his crackdown on peaceful protests, are probably more amenable to a just and equitable peace which will eventually end a one party state and the rule of the Assad family and its mainly Alawi inner circle. It is important that any peace and transition takes account of the various minorities such as Christians and that the majority Sunni community do not look for revenge against those they perceive to have been supporters of the Assad regime.

Edward F | 19 September 2013  

Thank you John for so clearly articulating the possibilities of imaginative diplomacy instead of the self justifying logic of violence. Let all of us peace lovers make our voices heard in every part of this country too.

Rod Horsfield | 19 September 2013  

My guess is that Barack Obama played a neat political game knowing full well that no one would countenance a military strike therefore the obvious, quickly achieved, next step was to 'de-chemicalise'?

Helen Martin | 19 September 2013  

A just peace trumps war anytime in my view. And peace is usually, mostly, just. Something has to be done and it seems to me that provided the chemical attacks stop and the arsenals destroyed that peace needs to be given an opportunity to break out. Bravo Kerry, Obama and Putin on this one.

Tony Macklin | 19 September 2013  

Chemical weapons are indeed wickedly effective in killing but I cannot grasp why their use can cause any more moral outrage than the use of any weapon designed to take human life.

Martin Loney | 19 September 2013  

Thank you for this excellent analysis direct from New York, a key centre for diplomacy on Syria. It may well be that Obama has been playing a clever political game. There are still many hurdles in the way of implementation. We should remember however that Obama was proposing to use military force in way that transgressed international law as normally understood (whatever rationalizations might have been advanced). Is it a case of the end justifying the means here? Or was Obama putting in a kind of 'ambit claim' on this issue to facilitate movement but without ever really intending to use force? A backdown from his position would have been difficult unless Congress had rejected his proposal. Andrew Hamilton argues that the consequences of military action would have been to exacerbate the situation in Syria. A hopeful aspect of this development is that it might provide a precedent for US-Russian cooperation in furthering a political settlement in Syria. This is a much more complex issue of course but Russia has influence with the Syrian government; the US has influence in relation to some opposition elements and relevant regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel. Time will tell.

Derek McDougall | 20 September 2013  

Barack Obama, with the assistance of the Russians, seems to be pursuing a much more independent foreign policy in the Middle East than his Saudi or Israeli allies would like. Peace on the ground in Syria is something which may not be able to be achieved in New York. Robert Fisk, the Independent's longtime Middle East correspondent, reporting recently from inside the country says that the civil war may go on for another two years and the bitterness engendered between the two sides, both of which have many atrocities on their hands, would be an obstacle. Getting rid of the battle hardened foreign jihadists would be one major problem. Nobody else would want them, including Russia, from whose southern republics many originate. Bringing genuine peace to Syria really means facilitating genuine peace in the region. Given the many interested players there, including Israel and Iran, that is indeed daunting. Obama needs to look clearly and fairly at the olive branch being offered by President Rowhani of Iran. It may help defuse the situation. Any Israeli attempt to attack Iran at this time would be disastrous for peace; the region and the world. Obama needs to oppose it.

Edward F | 20 September 2013  

Similar Articles

Lessons for Labor from across the Tasman

  • Cecily McNeill
  • 18 September 2013

As the Australian Labor Party embarked on its month-long process towards a grassroots election of a leader to replace Kevin Rudd, the New Zealand Labour Party was ending its long and sometimes brutal election of a new leader. The lesson from across the Tasman is that a grassroots election of a leader can broaden the base of those with a say in the party's destiny, and steer it back towards a more traditional social democratic stance.


Shaky grounds for just war in Syria

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 19 September 2013

The proposed military action against Syria lacks justification. Even if the cause for it were just, it would be vitiated by the lack of proportion between the limited good secured by it and the increased violence and sectarian division that will surely follow. That the strong should do what they can and the weak suffer what they must is real politik. But it should not be dignified with the name of justice.