Why the United States pulled back from the threat of war in Syria

Okot Nyormoi

About a month ago, the United States was poised to go to war in the Middle East. This threat of war was triggered by the allegation that President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria crossed the red line President Obama argued was set, not by him, but by the international community against the use of chemical weapons. President Assad was accused of having used chemical weapons in August 2013 to kill about 1,400 people including 400 children. Without designating the user, United Nation’s experts confirmed that chemical weapons were indeed used in the Syrian Civil war. The gruesome pictures reminiscent of fascist Hitler during World War II, Melosovic in Kosovo in the 1990s, Sadam Husain in killing the Kurds in the 1980s or the horror of the 1994 Rwanda genocide definitely elicited a moral revulsion of the highest order.

If it is true that President Assad used chemical weapons as alleged, the question was what should be the world’s response, keeping in mind that the chemical weapons were allegedly used in the context of a 2 year old civil war? Following intense debates of this question, particularly in the United Sates, many options were considered ranging from doing nothing to waging a war to oust the Assad regime.

Internationally, opinion was just as divided as it was in the USA. A few countries in the west like France sided with President Obama, but others like Britain said no. In contrast, Syria’s traditional allies such as Russia and Iran expectedly rejected a military solution. The vast majority of the countries of the world appeared to mind their own business.

The anti-war advocates argued that war is not the best way to a political problem. Instead, they called for a negotiated settlement. Short of that they should use economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, UN condemnation, indictment of the leaders of the Assad regime by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While these suggestions sounded great, they are not new because the Assad regime has been severely isolated by most of the western countries and their allies in the Middle East. The regime has been suspended from the Arab League, its assets in the west frozen, arms sale embargoed, travels banned and yet none of them have managed to bring about a regime change.

There were equally ardent advocates of a military response ranging from President Obama’s call for a limited US strike to a full blown war to effect regime change in Syria. Some of them argued that slapping President Assad on the wrist alone will not do any good because it sends the wrong message to him or those who have such weapons that they, too, can use it and get away with it. Obviously, there were strong disagreement among the supporters of a military response as to what action should be and how much or how long and by who should be taken.

Obviously, this is a complex problem. On the one hand, rogue leaders or countries that violate international laws have to be held accountable. Unfortunately, the existing international institutions are terribly ineffective to enforce international laws. Structurally, a structure like the UN Security Council is almost worthless because the antagonistic interests of the permanent members inevitably lead to no action unless it is something of no serious consequence to them.

The ICC is another structure which is desirable in principle, but ineffective in practice. Some of the major powers like the USA are not even signatories to the convention. Plus, the ICC has been accused of being used to serve certain political interests. Besides, it does not have its own means to implement its decisions. Currently several people ( top commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda, President Bashir of Sudan) who are indicted by the ICC for committing crimes against humanity are yet to be arrested after several years. Besides, the ICC seems to selectively indict certain leaders according to how it suits certain interest. In fact, this point was brought to the fore this week by the African Union which is threatening to pull out of the ICC if President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Vice President William Ruto of Kenya were not exempted from trial at The Hague.

Furthermore, the Syrian situation shows the limit of power of even the most powerful nations like the USA. First of all, at the international level, it could not muster enough support for a military response. Internally, citizens are war weary after Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress was in no mood to send Americas to another war as the one in Afghanistan is winding down. Besides, President Obama was caught in his own web having won the election in 2008 partly on the basis of his opposition to the war in Iraq.

This situation also called into question why the USA appeared more concerned about the killing of less than 2,000 people by chemical weapons compared to a benign response to the killing of reportedly 5 to 6million people in the DRC or the killing of up to 100,000 people in Syria by conventional weapons. Does it matter to the victims and their loved ones whether they are killed by chemical weapons or conventional weapons?

The intense debate on the politics, morality, appropriateness and validity of the different proposed response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria ended abruptly when Russia and the US agreed to demand Assad give up his chemical weapons; thus, pulling the USA back from the brink of war. So, what really happened to make the seemingly impossible to become a reality?

Obviously, this was a result of a convergence of multiple interests. First, while the Americans threatened war to weaken the Assad regime, they were not happy with the prospect of strengthening the rebels which included al-Qaeda. Similarly, the Russians did not relish a defeat of their client state by the rebels which included Russia’s own rebels from Chechnya. The defeat of Assad would provide a good training ground for enemies of both the USA and Russia. One can only imagine the spectacle of such chemical weapons falling into the hands of suicide bombers.

To retain her influence in the region, Russia figured it is better to keep Assad in power than to have an amalgam of rebels take over in Syria. Russia would lose a huge military contract. Furthermore, the Russians are said to be concerned about the increasing US military intervention without the approval of the United Nation’s Security Council where Russia has a veto power. To sweeten the deal, the Russians leaned on Iran to signal her willingness to abandon her nuclear weapon development in exchange for sparing Assad and isolation of Iran. In the end, it was a no brainer for Assad to give up its chemical weapons.

The UN in collaboration with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) began work immediately to search, find and destroy Syria’s 1,000 tons of chemical weapons within a year. For its effort, OPCW was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize late last week.

The take home lesson is that leaders of client states serve at the pleasure of their benefactors. Once the interests of the benefactors do not rhyme with those of the leaders of client states, they can be abandoned unceremoniously as the rebels in Syria are apparently abandoned by the US and Assad was forced to give up his chemical weapons by Russia. Of course, ultimately, it is up to the people of Syria who will determine the fate of the Assad regime.