Strikes Averted. Is There a Path to Peace in Syria?

After the U.N. confirmed chemical weapons were used, President Obama and other Western leaders seem optimistic about a diplomatic path forward.

Members of the U.N. investigation team take samples from sand near a part of a missile that is likely to be one of the chemical rockets.
National Journal
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Matt Vasilogambros
Sept. 17, 2013, 2 a.m.

The United Na­tions con­firmed Monday what the U.S. and its al­lies have been say­ing for weeks: Chem­ic­al weapons con­tain­ing the deadly pois­on sar­in were used in Syr­ia on Aug. 22.

While the U.N. re­port does not as­sign blame — they say it’s a purely sci­entif­ic ana­lys­is without polit­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion — it has only bolstered the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s case, as it con­tin­ues to press the As­sad re­gime to des­troy its massive chem­ic­al-weapons stock­piles.

The res­ults of the re­port show “over­whelm­ing and in­dis­put­able” evid­ence that chem­ic­al weapons were used on a “re­l­at­ively large scale,” ac­cord­ing to U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon.

But as West­ern of­fi­cials re­acted to the latest re­port from the U.N. and the deal to des­troy or con­tain all Syr­i­an chem­ic­al weapons by the middle of 2014 — a deal which the U.S. and Rus­sia ne­go­ti­ated over the week­end — they also seemed to think that this latest break­through leaves an open­ing for broad­er peace talks between Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad and the op­pos­i­tion.

The lar­ger point: If the U.S. hadn’t threatened mil­it­ary ac­tion after Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack, a peace­ful path for­ward in Syr­ia might nev­er have emerged.

Pres­id­ent Obama has backed a dip­lo­mat­ic end to the Syr­i­an civil war for sev­er­al months, but in an in­ter­view with 60 Minutes on Sunday, he sug­ges­ted that if it wer­en’t for the threat of ac­tion “we would not be get­ting even tick­lers like this.”

“We’re go­ing to have to get the parties to ar­rive at some sort of set­tle­ment,” he said on CBS. “But this may be the first step in what po­ten­tially could be an end to ter­rible blood­shed and mil­lions of refugees throughout the re­gion that is of deep con­cern to us and our al­lies.”

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry and his coun­ter­parts from the United King­dom and France seemed to echo those thoughts Monday. Brit­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Wil­li­am Hag­ue said he re­mains com­mit­ted to the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion and a res­ol­u­tion through meet­ings in Switzer­land between the As­sad re­gime, the op­pos­i­tion, West­ern al­lies, and Rus­sia.

“Our goal re­mains to con­vene a second Geneva con­fer­ence to bring all sides to­geth­er to agree a polit­ic­al solu­tion to the con­flict, and we will work with Rus­sia on bring­ing that about as soon as pos­sible,” Hag­ue said in Par­is on Monday.

Kerry’s tone was strongest among his col­leagues in see­ing As­sad’s ouster:

“We make it clear that As­sad has lost all le­git­im­acy to be pos­sible to gov­ern this coun­try, and we re­main com­mit­ted to the op­pos­i­tion and com­mit­ted to the Geneva pro­cess, which calls for a trans­ition gov­ern­ment with full ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity by mu­tu­al con­sent of the parties that will lay out the struc­ture for the new Syr­ia,” he said.

But what these state­ments seem to com­plic­ate, however, is the in­volve­ment of the As­sad re­gime in loc­at­ing and des­troy­ing Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al-weapons stock­pile. And while the weapons are be­ing con­tained and the West tries to pro­mote peace talks, the U.S. con­tin­ues to fun­nel arms in­to Syr­ia to help op­pos­i­tion forces in an at­tempt to even the fight.

Fur­ther, it’s un­clear wheth­er the As­sad re­gime will co­oper­ate and fol­low through with this latest agree­ment. The Amer­ic­an pub­lic seems to think not. Ac­cord­ing to a new poll re­leased by Pew, 57 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans dis­agree that Syr­ia will give up its chem­ic­al weapons in re­sponse to dip­lomacy, as op­posed to just 26 per­cent who would agree. And if it doesn’t work, just 37 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans think the U.S. should use air­strikes if these dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts don’t work.

So, while the U.S. and Rus­sia seem more will­ing to find a solu­tion to the con­flict in Syr­ia, that still does not dis­tract from the stark real­it­ies on the ground: The As­sad re­gime and frag­men­ted op­pos­i­tion forces con­tin­ue their bloody battles.

And the re­gion is not im­mune to this fight­ing, either. On Monday, Turk­ish war­planes shot down a Syr­i­an heli­copter that vi­ol­ated Tur­key’s air­space—this is not the first time this has happened.

The situ­ation in Syr­ia is com­plex. But in an­noun­cing the res­ults of the U.N. re­port, Ban said he wants to gath­er all parties in Geneva for peace talks, and will meet with Kerry and Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov later this month to dis­cuss when this can hap­pen.

“My hope is that this in­stance will serve as a wake-up call,” Ban said Monday. Sure. But it also might serve as a way out of the broad­er con­flict.

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