Gabrielle Rifkind

7 September 2013

Is there an alternative to a military strike? One signature by Assad could help avert the bombing. Getting him to sign the chemical weapons convention is an alternative to war.

A version of this article has appeared in The Times newspaper on 7 September 2013.

Does military intervention make a safer world? We seem to be trapped in a crude, bipolar choice, in which we either use military force or we do nothing. 

President Obama has clearly stated that the purpose of a military strike against the Syrian government is to change President Assad's behaviour so he will not use chemical weapons against his people again. Clearly important, we cannot ignore such a flagrant use of chemical weapons, as we did in the 1980's when Saddam Hussein used them indiscriminately against the Iranians and his own people. What now matters is finding a way to help end this vicious war. This requires us to work closely with Russia and bring in the regional players who are funding the war: Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Western governments are frustrated by Russia’s obstructionist position, but in the pragmatic game of conflict resolution we must be realistic about the limits of Russia’s cooperation, and construct an agreement with them based on areas of potential common agreement. One source could be the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its implementation. In my conversations with senior advisors close to the Kremlin there is clearly some appetite for this route. My colleague Hans Blix, who lead the United Weapons inspection team in Iraq, is clear that the Russians are well-placed to find a way out of this quagmire.

Despite the report of frosty relations between Mr Obama and Vladimir Putin at the G20, these seasoned politicians know how to bury personal differences and find room for agreement when the common interest dictates. The CWC, an arms control agreement outlawing the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, provides an opportunity.  

Syria is not a CWC signatory and has the largest stockpile of active chemical weapons in the world. Whist there is some evidence that Russia is defending the indefensible in its refusal to accept that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it is legitimate to see evidence from the UN inspectors. There maybe a way through by a Security Council an agreement to ensure the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons. This would allow the international community to act in concert, which is what really matters. The United States would be able to claim that it was their resolute actions, and threats of military action, that brought Assad to the negotiating table. 

From his point of view by signing up to the CWC he would avoid a US attack and his relationship with Russia and Iran would be strengthened. He must surely be concerned that there has been some evidence of a rift within the Iranian Administration with several key individuals expressing discomfort at Syria's use of chemical weapons. 

Russia could exert its muscle and act on behalf of the international community to get Assad to accept the terms of the CWC, to declare stocks (much as Russia and the United States have), to proceed with the monitored destruction of stocks, and to commit to joining up. A UN Security Council motion after the inspectors have reported could then condemn the use of chemical weapons as a way of finding consensus amongst Security Council members. Whilst the implementation of the CWC will be a lengthy process and will require a ceasefire before any investigations could begin, it would be a device for the international community to start working together on Syria.

But this will not be enough without getting back to the negotiating table at the proposed Geneva 2 peace talks. The process, which was launched in May, has stalled partly because of disagreement between the big powers. Together the US and Russia can pressurise both sides in the civil war into a ceasefire which would also involve agreements with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Russia to stop the supply of weapons. There is a danger that the Syrian rebels will be emboldened by US military strikes and this will cause further delay and only joint action may influence this.  

There is no peace settlement on Syria that is possible without the engagement of Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia’s links to the Syrian regime and its working relationship with Iran will be a critical component. The weakened Syrian army is currently strengthened by the support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, and by the Iranian trained, supplied and financed Hezbollah. The war in Syria had some time ago morphed into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia; Russia will need to play a critical role in drawing the sting from this conflict.

Syria needs to be held accountable for its use of chemical weapons, but punishment by military action is not the only way of achieving this. History tells us that it is easier to get into conflict than to get out, and war and its consequences have their dangerous algorithms, feeding on themselves with a devastating momentum of their own. 

The road to military intervention may look like a careful strategic assessment; more likely it is mired in a deep fog of misunderstanding and misreading, which is likely to unleash an unpredictable chain of events, with the looming risk of regional war. 


Gabrielle Rifkind is Middle East Programme Director at the Oxford Research Group (ORG). 

She has co-authored with our Advisor and top negotiator Gianni Picco: ‘The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of conflict resolution’ (due to be published in February 2014). 

Photo: Caption: President Barack Obama talks with advisors in the Oval Office, 10 September 2013. Attendees include from left: Tony Blinken, Deputy National Security Advisor; Phil Gordon, White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region; National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Source: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza