Syria, Deterrence of Chemical Weapons and U.S. Policy in the Middle East – By Joshua Landis

Syria, Deterrence of Chemical Weapons and U.S. Policy in the Middle East
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – April 12, 2018

President Trump has been provoked into action by the terrible videos coming out of Syria. They are horrifying. He can uphold the Obama policy, which is to stand by the international norm of prohibiting the use of chemical weapons if it is proven that Assad used chemical weapons. It is the policy that he has already adopted following the use of Sarin at Khan Shaikhun. The mistake of both Obama and Trump has been to allowed the use of chlorine gas to slip under the radar. It was not originally proscribed in the 2013 deal, and though added to list later, it has not been acted upon. Trump can probably deter further use of chlorine gas in Syria by hurting the regime with a missile strike. But such a strike will be a narrow response, unlikely to change the course of the war. Some 1,900 Syrians have been killed so far by chemical weapons. Further missile strikes will not address the deaths of close to half a million Syrians.

Opposition members, Sunni states, and Israel will again be disappointed and critical of Washington when a narrow exercise of deterrence doesn’t alter the balance of power in Syria or signal the beginning of a US war against the Assad regime.

Trump’s instinct to keep the US from establishing a permanent role in Syria is fundamentally correct, in my estimation. 

The US would be committing a grave mistake should it try to build a viable state in North Syria for the Kurds. Northeast Syria is a poor part of country that is beset by many problems. Kurds and Arabs have diametrically opposed national ambitions in the region. The tribes are at each other’s throats after years of war and being forced to join one rebel force after another. Blood feuds abound. Social services and the foundations for a state are practically non-existent in the region. Kurds number about 2 to 2.5 million in population. For US policy makers to be arguing that Northeast Syria is the right place for America to build a viable policy in the region that can roll back Iran, bring about regime-change in Damascus, and reestablish American credibility in the Northern Middle East is frankly incredible. Those who espouse such a policy probably know little about the social and political realities of the region and do not appreciate the commitment and great expense that such an effort would entail, not to mention that it is likely doomed to failure. It will be even more difficult than building a viable central state in northern Iraq that would include Kirkuk, etc.

But the US does not have to abandon the Kurds of Syria to the predations of Turkey or the Assad regime.

The US should be helping the Kurdish leadership of North Syria negotiate a deal with Assad that promotes both their interests: Kurdish autonomy and Syrian sovereignty. Both have shared interests, which make a deal possible. Both see Turkey as their main danger. Both need to cooperate in order to exploit the riches of the region. Both distrust radical Islamists and fear their return. Neither can rebuild alone. Syria’s Kurdish regions need to sell their produce to Syria and to establish transit rights; Damascus needs water, electricity and oil. Of course, policing any deal between the PYD and Damascus will not be easy. Northern Syrians will look to Washington to help guarantee their liberties. But helping both sides to strike a deal sooner than later is important. Washington has the leverage in Syria to make such an agreement last and to help the Kurds; it does not have the leverage to depose Assad or roll back Iran. Today, demands are not entrenched, institutions and parties are not established, and borders are not fixed. Tomorrow, they will be. The US can help the Kurds get a better deal on resource sharing than they have had in the past.

To build an independent or quasi independent state in North Syria that has its own army and that can defend itself in the face of Turkish, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian efforts to destroy it will require a commitment of decades, not years. It will need billions upon billions of dollars and a real nation-building effort, not simply a stabilization program.

If the US wants to get out of Syria in the next few years, it cannot tell Kurds that it will remain in the region for the long-haul to promote a viable statelet in North Syria and make it an instrument of an ambitious U.S. policy to hurt all of its neighbors.

The US has failed in its effort to produce a US-friendly and democratic Northern Middle East, where Sunnis and Shiites power-share and emulate US forms of governance. Turkey has turned to Russia and authoritarianism. Iraq is a Shiite-dominated state that needs decades to build reliable institutions that will allow it to turn away from dependence on Iran. Assad’s authority has survived in most of Syria, and Hizbullah is more powerful than ever in Lebanon. For the US to believe that it can reverse this history of political failure and misspent millions by launching a comeback in North Syria is nothing short of laughable.

To promote US policies of counter-terrorism, refugee return, and stabilization, not to mention economic revival for future generations, Washington should admit its losses and stop further efforts to defeat Iran or Russia in the region. It should allow these powers to rebuild the region. The US does not have to cooperate with Assad in rebuilding or spend its own money on the effort, but it should allow the region to stabilize and revive on its own, finding help where it can. Blocking highways, withholding oil resources to punish Assad, and building up yet more militias will not further long-term US objectives. It may gratify our allies, who want the United States to roll back Iran. It may also satisfy those who want to turn the region into a quagmire for both Russia and the Iranians, but it is neither wise nor humanitarian.

The US has the dominant position in the southern Middle East – the Gulf, Egypt and North Africa – where oil wealth is plentiful. It can do without the northern Middle East and should recognize the new security architecture of the region, where Iran has influence in the North. The US can help Israel and Saudi Arabia deter and contain Iran without a launchpad for power-projection in north Syria.

Only by returning to the simple truth that prosperity will advance U.S. interests will the US begin to put an end to terrorism, promote democracy, and attenuate the flood of refugees that pours from the region. Democracy, moderation, and the acceptance of liberal values will only come with education and economic growth. There is no quick fix to the region’s problems. Ensuring that Syrians and Iranians remain poor in the hope that they will demand regime-change is a bad policy. It has not worked despite decades of sanctions. Instead, sanctions have brought collapse, war, and bitterness to the region. Dividing Syrians and keeping them poor may ensure short-term US interests, but in the long-term it will ensure failure and more wars. Only by promoting growth and unity can the United States advance stability, the rule of law, and liberal values.
Addendum II: The fact that Chlorine is not listed as a Chemical Weapon in the Chemical Weapons Convention does not constitute a “loophole” in the 2013 agreement. “The of any toxic chemical as a weapon of war is banned under the CWC,” wrotes Amy Gordon, who helped negotiate the CWC for the U.S. and led the substantive input to the Senate for its ratification. Here is her nice note of correction:

Dear Josh,

I follow your site faithfully and think it makes a huge contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the complex issues unfolding in Syria.
One small correction, however.  Regarding chlorine. The fact that it is not listed in the schedules of the CWC does not mean that it constitutes a loophole in the 2013 agreement. The use of any toxic chemical as a weapon of war is banned under the CWC. The lists are simply meant to capture a range of the most toxic chemicals descending from those which have no commercial use to those which have some or mostly commercial applications. Nothing further needed to be done to establish the illegality of the use of chlorine as a weapon of war.
You probably don’t have time to read the link, but here’s the OPCW’s authoritative description of chemical weapons.
The real question regarding chlorine use, therefore appears to be political, not legal. Unfortunately, I can’t say why the CWC parties have been relatively sanguine about chlorine use and exercised about nerve agent, except to say that the effects of nerve agent are more severe and dramatic, creating a public reaction that makes official indifference more difficult.  No doubt events on the ground in Syria are contributing as well.
Best, Amy
Research Professor: Institute for Security and Conflict Studies
Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University
Addendum: A friend asked: “Can you tell us what we do if ISIS reconstitutes itself to a degree in Syria?”

I wouldn’t envision the US leaving Syria for another year or two and not before it could help the Kurds and Arabs of the region get on their feet and restore essential services such as water and electricity to Raqqa. By that time, I would imaging that the Kurds and Syrian military as well as the Iraqi military will be able to police the area. The reason ISIS was able to spread in eastern Syria was that the Syrian army withdrew in 2011 in order to try to control the cities in the west. The Syrian Army handed authority to the Kurdish forces in the region that became the YPG, but they were too primitive and few in number to take control of the region. Salafist militias pushed aside the more moderate local clan based armed units that at first emerged in villages and towns across the region. Al-Qaida in Iraq was able to spread out into Syria and eventually split into two factions: Nusra led by Joulani and ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq. It will become increasingly hard for ISIS to make a come back with central authority restored in Iraq and Syria and much tougher militaries in both countries.

The Syrian situation is far from good. But I do not believe that the US will be able to impose itself in the region over the long-haul, as those who argue for remaining in north Syria argue. My hunch is that some president will want to get out, probably pressured by a public that suffers from sticker shock and sees no long-term interest for the United States in Syria.

I think Israel can protect itself by laying down a red line, as it is doing with its present strikes against Iranian and Hizbullah forces and interests in Syria. This Israeli strategy worked with Hizbullah in Lebanon. There is no reason to believe that it won’t work in Syria. Syria’s leaders have seen no interest interest in war with Israel since 1973. The sooner stability in Syria is restored and the sooner the government regains control over the situation, the less likely it will be that Iran can force Syria into an aggressive action against Israel that goes beyond self defense. 

Comments (16)

b said:

The ‘chemical incident’ in Ghouta was obviously staged. Trump announced he wants out, fake ‘incident’ happens, Trump urged to bomb. Happened in April 2017 and now in April 2018.

Neither UN personal in Damascus, nor journalists, nor the Russian military police have found any evidence that the incident was real.

Why would any scientist consider otherwise?

April 12th, 2018, 5:29 am


Alif said:

How much would you bet that is was staged? Say you have in your possession a Magic Truth Machine that knows the truth about everything. If you are correct and the attack was staged the machine will issue you a nice prize. But if you are wrong and it was not staged you forfeit your life. Would you make that wager? I don’t think you would.

April 12th, 2018, 2:48 pm


Eugene said:

And with all the advice/comments since this war in Syria started, both for & against, what lessons have been learned? Is it truly desperation, folly, unable to except defeat, we’re going to blow your country back to the stone age because we can? Have deals already been made? Is it really worth it to risk WW 3 as a last ditch effort? Time to retreat, let the chips fall as they may, quit trying to force other countries to bend to the will of those who have created this disaster.

April 12th, 2018, 6:37 am


Alif said:

What I never see mentioned is the simple fact that sending cruise missiles into Syria and killing Syrians, ostensibly to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons, just adds to the death and misery that has engulfed Syria since 2011 and solves nothing. Some infrastructure and military equipment will be destroyed along with the lives of some low ranking soldiers, perhaps conscripts, and maybe some civilians. The horror show that is the war will grind on. Assad, his generals and military planners will not be unduly affected.

The United States and the other foreign actors propping up the regime and various opposition factions are not doing so to help Syrians of course but purely out of self-interest. The phony concern for human life shown by Western politicians is deeply cynical and shameful. How is being blown apart by high explosive shells less cruel than being gassed to death? And why are these foreign posers silent as Israel shoots unarmed peaceful protestors in the back and bombs besieged Gaza yet again?

If these hypocrites were really motivated by moral concerns they would be trying to stop wars and the killing of civilians, not giving their allies a free pass to kill unarmed protesters with impunity while launching token attacks against a country whose civil war they actively prolong.

April 12th, 2018, 2:34 pm


M.M said:

I don’t know why you have cause to believe that North Eastern Syria cannot transform into something better and exemplary. There should be a de-facto partition of Syria, and SDF-controlled Syria can be an opportunity for the Syrians opposed to Assad to make a better life. Yes, the region is poor in administration and infrastructure, but lets face it: any day after-Assad was bound to be. The US should encourage the establishment of a self-governance structure in NE-Syria and help set up institutions. Things can even get better once US and Turkey are willing to work together again. NE-Syria can make use of the oil-fields to bring in income, and the mere fact that Assad no longer has exclusive rule of Syria will provide Syrians an opportunity to start becoming more politically engaged.

Assad is a dead-end. His regime is the Middle Eastern equivalent of North Korea, and we have seen countless times his unwillingness to compromise anything. Don’t get me wrong, im not calling for escalation but a de-facto partition is better than what you argue for because it is not a zero sum solution.

April 12th, 2018, 4:27 pm


Ed Jazairi said:

Joshua, It would seems to me that Trump is provoked by seeing images of children suffering in agony. This is the same response he displayed regarding the Khan Shiekhoun chemical attack. I believe that his daughter Ivanka Trump who is prodding him to act. Good for her. Also, I believe that Syria is heading toward a UN over seer ship mandate with an out side commissar ruling Syria for many generations to come. A subject I have mentioned to you, especially in one of your Houston trip. And you have reject it on the spot. Will see!?

April 12th, 2018, 8:48 pm


J said:

Are you all aware that even though no one says the obvious, an attack would be illegal under all circumstances?
The USA as well as any other country not invited by the Syrian Government is not entitled to act in Syria. Has common knowledge already died a suffocating death?

Moreover who are you to push for war when even Mattis admits that there is no evidence at all concerning chemical assaults by the Assad Government.

April 13th, 2018, 7:42 am


M. Ibrahim said:

To Mr Landis
Thank you, Mr. Landis, for your hope for peace and unity in Syria, as well as your opposition to an American attack that will further destroy the country and cause more casualties among civilians. I agree with you, but:
You say , Democracy, moderation, and the acceptance of liberal values will only come with education and economic growth. There is no quick fix to the region’s problems.
Who will ensure this qualitative transition to these values? The Assad regime, which is responsible for the economic crises since 1970 and even more so since the arrival of the son with the ulterior destruction of the country since 2011. Not to mention the disastrous politics of education.

To Mrs b said:
Neither UN personal in Damascus,have found any evidence that the incident was real.
Can they go to Douma !!!
nor journalists: Journalists from Tishreen newspaper or a Lebanese one ?
nor the Russian military police: That’s Laughable!!!
I add, nor Syrian army or it’s militias!

April 13th, 2018, 10:25 am


Moin said:

Can this current system in Syria provide a model for a future state? I think that is not possible. It simply made Syria a center of international and regional conflicts. Military bases and decades of decades have been established for countries like Iran and Russia … We have to think seriously The situation for Israel will not be as good as for Saudi Arabia as well as for America .. And the Syrian people, the situation is bad for him … We must not forget that it was the Syrian regime that worked to support the Isos to be a state and to frighten the world as a partner with the regime in oil and grain .
.Assad did all he could to remain in power … He applied all the international theories on terrorism. At the beginning of the unrest in Syria, he said frankly that 6 million of his people were terrorists … he had a plan to build a terrorist base in Syria, Helped to establish fundamentalist religious groups in Iraq during the US invasion of Iraq … Then these groups developed until they later became in Syria … Who knows the nature of the four security services in Syria can easily know how terrorist entities in Syria were created threatening the world Where the Syrian state security Forces (Amen Aldaola) has a tribal background, especially in the Deir al-Zour and al-Raqqa and Alhasakh … the same tribes on the Iraqi side of the border … then the terrorists were supported in this way ..

April 13th, 2018, 5:42 pm


Roland said:

The Syrian War has been bad enough already, without anybody foolishly expanding it on account of a spurious and logically incoherent humanitarianism.

I say, “spurious,” because it is obvious that a wider war against Syria would be mainly based on power-political considerations, with the humanitarianism a mere pretext.

I say, “logically incoherent,” because it is obviously absurd to pretend humanitarian concern over the cause of less than one percent of the casualties in the war, while supplying arms and money that have caused far more suffering.

It is the war that is causing the atrocities, not the other way around. To expand the war will only add to the sum of human suffering.

April 13th, 2018, 6:54 pm


syrian said:

message to israil usa british france
come take ur officers prosiners
we gave them to russia
let the world know why they attack us today with military strikes
we have alot of military officers prisoners
saudi arabia ; israil ; british ; france ; australia ; turkish
all the officers prosiners was helping terrorist isis
after we capture some areas we catch them alive
greetings to all honest folks in the world

April 14th, 2018, 1:53 am


habib said:

It’s incredible that until now, no one has been able to come up with a motive for why Assad would use chemical weapons every time he is about to win somewhere other than “because he can” or “it wouldn’t be beyond him”.

Those are not motives, people. At least try to come up with something better.

April 14th, 2018, 9:42 am


Ghufran said:

Western powers supported islamist rebels from day one and were not interested in the truth or the welfare of Syrians, that makes their military action disingenuous and self-serving. It is interesting that Syria was bombed before a UN team was supposed to start looking at the evidence and after eastern Ghouta was liberated from pro Saudi jihadists, the same people who bombed Syria are the ones who encouraged a regime change by force and ignored calls to stop the war before it gets out of hand. Now, after Syria is destroyed and millions are displaced we are supposed to expect the pro Syrian government forces to give concessions to jihadists when those jihadists lost control over most of Syria !!
Those who chose war instead of diplomacy are not in a position to go back and ask for diplomacy after their puppets lost the war, and a mini bombing act will not change anything except making some troubled politicians feel relevant for few weeks. The West lost the war to Russia and Iran and it will be very difficult to change course now.

April 14th, 2018, 5:01 pm


Ethan Ellenberg said:

It’s unclear how any version of an Assad regime can successfully rule Syria which is an understated basis of your views. It’s not only the terrible crimes he’s committed against his own people it’s all his governing decisions over the entire length of his rule. His allies won’t fund it, they won’t support any version of wise decisions as their sole goal is their own political gains. Some form of partition if only to anchor the economic and social necessities in the hands of the actual people who will need to carry them out and live with the consequences makes far more sense. There’s little reason for hope and your cautionary notes are sound but your promotion of an Assad answer for all of Syria is amiss because he is incapable of exactly what you prescribe.

April 15th, 2018, 1:41 pm


SimoHurtta said:

It is amusing,that using tear gas in war is illegal, because tear gas is a battle gas and a chemical weapon. The formula of CS gas is C10 H5 Cl N2, where Cl is naturally chloride. CN-gas (Phenacyl chloride) is chlorine based. Israel uses CS-gas against civilians in Gaza and West Bank. That is obviously a legal way of using chloride. If the Gaza people would be soldiers in an official war that use would be illegal.

If Syrian forces use chloride (which I doubt because the military benefit of it is very limited compared to use of “normal” military bombs and the propaganda loss in using chloride is enourmous) they could say we are doing the same as police around the world and especially IDF – simple crowd control.

April 15th, 2018, 2:13 pm


Um Mahmood said:

“Democracy, moderation, and the acceptance of liberal values will only come with education and economic growth.”
Does this include rehabilitation for shabbihah and mukhabarat, or will
these groups be even more emboldened and empowered to arrest, torture and execute Syrians for insufficient worship of the Assad system? How can education and economic growth occur without intellectual and academic freedom? You enjoy that freedom as an American academic, so don’t ordinary Syrians deserve it also?

Even if all sanctions are lifted, Syrians will still suffer if the Assad system remains in place.

According to Mustafa Khalifa’s prescient article “What if Bashar Assad wins” (2012), the regime goals in that situation would be
” First, to rebuild the wall of fear and terror into the hearts of the Syrian people; second, to take revenge from demonstrators, protesters, and all the parties that have damaged the regime or “insulted” it; third, to take control of the economic decision at the private sector’s level; and, fourth, to change the doctrinal composition of the Syrian society.”….

Mustafa Khalifa is the author of “The Shell” a novel based on his
time spent in a Syrian prison.

April 16th, 2018, 5:41 pm


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