Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 18 October – 1 November 2013

Conflicts Forum

Anyone who has visited Syria over the years can see the remarkable qualitative transformation that has now overtaken the Syrian army and security apparatus.  The Syrian army is no longer the lackadaisical, de-motivated entity it formerly was; it is now sharp, discretely efficient and self-confident. Deference to the rich or influential who ride in expensive cars, or even in official cars, has gone: there is no casual ‘waving through’ of check-points for anyone. The army presence is not overly visible, but is evidently ‘there’ in the background, efficiently courteous and insistent. The various rings of security around the capital do cause heavy traffic jams, but any visitor to Damascus will observe a city that is clean, with modern facilities, and which is functioning effectively and efficiently – if not exactly normally.

This is not to suggest that there is no stress. Clearly there is: prices are high and though most people have managed somehow to ‘normalise’ living with conflict, there remains nagging fears for friends and family across the country. The point here is that much western media reporting takes to itself the projection of the intrepid ‘war correspondent’ coping – against a hostile environment – in an unstable conflict zone, and of a network of underground activists furtively working to bring the most basic services, such as medical aid, to people. It is true that there is both conflict and there are activists, but this is not the situation of most of Syria. More importantly, what this journalistically self-serving narrative does is effectively obscure and render invisible the qualitative and politically significant shifts that are affecting both the government and Syrian society in the larger sense. In the past year, Syria is much transformed. Sometimes crisis causes either individuals or a society to fragment and their will to weaken, severe crises also can cause the person, a community or society to acquire a new resilience and inner-self confidence. It may be ephemeral, but this is Syria today – and it carries important implications.

This new ethos is as well being reinforced by new dynamics. The government feels tangibly the slide of international politics in its direction (including by the US): European intelligence services (German, French and British) have resumed their relations with Damascus. Other European states are quietly discussing the re-opening of their embassies; some Gulf states are informally expressing to their Syrian opposite numbers their disenchantment with GCC (notably Saudi) policy towards Syria, and the majority of regional states now seem to favour a political solution.  Egyptians too privately indicate that they sense a greater common interest with Syria, than with their patron, Saudi Arabia, but the politics of the Egyptian situation does not allow for a free expression of such sentiments.  In Damascus, however, there can be little doubt but that the tide of their diplomatic isolation has turned.

All this has given a new direction and ‘feel’ to the government. It is no longer so overwhelmingly preoccupied by the war — thought is turning increasingly to the requirements of political process, and also toward the changes that will need to be effected in Syrian society in the aftermath of the conflict. It is not just within the government that this debate is now seriously underway — the Baath party has opened itself to a serious debate about Syria’s future with other political currents and interests (a very frank session happened last week), and the same is occuring in society at large.

Outside of Syria, this ‘transition’ prescriptively describes what the external world ‘expects’ from Syria. Transition clearly is necessary — it will happen and, as described above, is already under way – and will, of course, not be simple. However, externally, the embrace of ‘transition’ demanded of the Syrian government largely ignores the wider upheaval gripping the region – with power-sharing advocated as if it represents some sort of panacea whereas the reality is that there is no ‘big idea’ to underpin future visions for all states of the region: the Turkish model, the Gulf model, the Egyptian model, the Muslim Brotherhood model, the western liberal market model — all are partly or completely discredited.  So it is unlikely that Syria alone can find easy ideas about how to steer society afresh in these turbulent times.  Power-sharing may well be a part of the answer, but whether for Syria, Egypt or Tunisia the crisis (and challenges) are graver than the simplistic (Western) call for governments of national unity.

Behind the turning of this diplomatic tide – no doubt – stands a greater appreciation (and acknowledgement) by western governments of the actual reality of chemical weapons. This appreciation has undergone a quiet transformation too. It is now clear from the inspections that Syria had no nerve gas. Syria held stocks of the chemicals (which in themselves are quite ordinary and stable), but which are the constituent precursors to the production of nerve gas. Whilst these precursors remain unmixed, they not particularly dangerous – which is why the destruction of Syria’s stocks is progressing so rapidly. Only when these precursors are mixed do they become highly volatile and subject to rapid deterioration – if not deployed very quickly. Usually the precursors are kept strictly separate, even in the warhead, and are ‘mixed’ only by the breaking of the separate chemical vessels as the warhead impacts on landing.

We know from as far back as the 2001 war that President Assad had no time for such weapons, which his father had first introduced in reaction Israel’s nuclear weaponisation: hence the Syrian chemical stocks have remained completely unweaponised. Nonetheless, the Syrian army continued to have dedicated chemical weapons units, and like any and every army, they continued to train and to simulate combat – though without mixing the precursors – i.e. without actually making a ‘weapon’.

Precisely because of the volatility of the chemicals once mixed, governments who have chemical weapons add chemical stabilisers to the precursors in order to protect their own troops from this volatility hazard. It also is becoming plainer now that the sarin gas that was deployed in Syria both in March and August of this year was of a similar chemical ‘fingerprint’, but contained none of the inhibitors that might be expected in official chemical stocks. In short, it does not have an official type ‘DNA’, and is therefore very unlikely to have come from government chemical holdings. Indeed, the Russians have provided the UN with empirical evidence in respect to both incidents (so far unpublished by the UN), which officials say argues that both events were mounted by the opposition as a deliberate provocation. Beyond these facts, we also know that the opposition and some regional states were expecting a “major development” immediately before the 21 August incident: regional and international sources point to Prince Bandar’s involvement in the sarin gas use and to PM Erdogan’s prior knowledge that a ‘major development’ was about to occur in Syria (as expressed by Turkish officials to opposition figures in Istanbul earlier in August).

Were some European governments complicit in this, or did they genuinely believe that President Assad intended to use chemical weapons against his own people?  It is not clear what was known by whom – and at what level – but tentatively, it seems that US and Israeli detailed surveillance of Syrian chemical weapons unit exercises were somehow ‘interpreted’ to suggest that Syrian security forces had the intent to use such weapons against the opposition, and that they must be fully deterred and repeatedly warned against such a use. So when the August 21 event occurred, the ground had been laid for some political leaders to jump to the conclusion that Syrian forces had in fact carried out an attack – as the intelligence ‘interpretation’ had seemed to imply was likely to occur.  Tensions within the US intelligence community over the managing of Syrian chemical weapons intelligence (much of it deriving from Israel) has already been publicly reported – as have someCIA resignations that consequently resulted from this friction.   

As the sense gains ground that the West may have been at the very brink of war on possibly false premises (again), we are seeing many governments begin to change their assessment both of Syrian government as well their view towards the opposition: a more deeply sceptical view of the opposition’s veracity and troubling questions about the policies of their sponsors are being heard. Equally we are witnessing a review of how President Assad is viewed. Tellingly, Europeans are resuming intelligence co-operation with Damascus while US policy interests seem to be drifting away from Syria — although it appears that the rise of al-Qaida jihadist groups is surfacing as a primary US security concern (trumping what was the key objective of ‘regime change’ in Syria), US policy appears to be one of having no policy for Syria.

Some in the region see the corollary to this US ‘no-policy’ policy as one of the US being ready to yield place to Russia to take a lead in resolving the Syria conflict – if that be a burden which Russia wishes to assume (but which the US does not). Associated with this may be the sense that Russia too can play a similar role – useful to the US – in bringing about a solution with Iran on the nuclear issue. In a sense, bi-polarism with Russia in defined parts of the Middle East may suit America well.

This US attenuated policy-posture makes good sense: by limiting its focus to two main issues – the Iran negotiations and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – President Obama can take the Democrats into the mid-term Congressional elections saying that in three primary areas, he has contributed to making Israel ‘safe’ (this being the main domestic US foreign policy concern, now that Middle Eastern ‘nation-building’ is viewed as a ‘bad movie’ by the American public). Firstly, Syria’s chemical weapons – the main ‘threat’ to Israel – have been destroyed; Iran is being ‘forced’ to disavow any nuclear weaponisation; and the Palestinians have been bullied into negotiating a peace with Israel (with any failure more clearly the fault of Israel, rather than that of the US President). Perhaps, in this contextualization of American interests, we may see such a platform even coming to  see President Assad as a possible ally in the common cause of defeating jihadism in the region. This, after all, is the logic to resumed western intelligence links with the Syrian government.

Set against this picture of political metamorphosis in Syria is the aspect which to date has not changed: Saudi Arabia – until now – has been escalating its actions in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria where thousands of foreign jihadists continue to enter the conflict. It is not surprising therefore that President Assad laid such emphasis in his meeting this week with Laktar Brahimi on the need for these groups and their continued arming to be curbed if the political process is to be taken forward.

With Saudi escalation continuing, the prospects for the holding of any Geneva II seem dim. Equally, there is still no obvious domestic opposition with whom negotiations can be pursued. There are domestic figures with whom the government can – and is – talking, but most of these are individualswho lack any real organization, constituency or influence in Syria. They can and do express their views, but none of this amounts to a basis for a new political dispensation for Syria.

The reality is that some prior Saudi-Iranian regional understandings will be required for a ‘top-table’ US-Russian settlement to have any possibility of being effective. The increasingly fragmented opposition are relatively immaterial to this: they will have to follow the regional compact should, and if one emerges. All those engaged in the Syria process therefore are waiting to see if Saudi Arabia will continue on its current course, or if it will change direction. Some do see prospects of such a change (simply because Saudi current policies are so clearly damaging for Saudi Arabia itself), but equally, all are keenly aware of the leadership void in the kingdom, and of the deep fear amongst the al-Saud that their claimed leadership of the Islamic world is slipping from their grasp, leaving them with only a diminished and somewhat tarnished legitimacy of happening to be the rulers of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca.  And it is not very probable that any new prospective Saudi direction will have occurred in time for a November Geneva II.


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