A chemical weapons “deal” on Syria?

Sep 12, 2013

A chemical weapons "deal" on Syria?

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 12, 2013
Number 09/13 #02

This Update deals with the latest surprise development in the Syria debate – with US President Obama delaying the Congressional vote to authorise the use of force against Syria as a punishment for chemical weapons use in the wake of a Russian proposal – based on a seemingly off-hand remark from US Secretary of State John Kerry – for a deal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control. (The text of Obama’s speech on Tuesday, both making a strong case for action against Syria and asking for a delay in voting to pursue the Russian proposal is here.)

The first analysis comes from Washington Institute scholar Michael Singh – who argues that the Russian proposal is a cynical feint but that Obama should nevertheless take advantage of it. Singh argues that Russia had traditionally used such last-minute peace proposals to avert US military action and embarrass the US, but this one is nonetheless opportune for the US Administration because of the current limited international and Congressional support for military action. Singh notes numerous serious problems with the Russian proposal, but nonetheless proposes the US try to create a deal focussing on resolving the Syrian situation beyond a mere punishment for use of chemical weapons. For this important analysis of the pitfalls and potential opportunities, CLICK HERE. Two other analysts, Lee Smith and  Julia Ioffe, writing in the right-leaning Weekly Standard and the left-leaning New Republic respectively, both see less possibility than Singh for Obama to turn the situation to US advantage, arguing it is simply a victory for Russia’s Putin. 

Next up is American columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who catalogues the numerous unanswered and potentially unanswerable questions about the Russian proposal. His 15 questions in all make it clear that this is very unlikely to work. They include: Why would Assad give up his weapons,? Why would the Russians play ball with the US to genuinely ensure he did so? How could you remove the chemical weapons as a practical matter amidst a war? And most importantly, how could you possibly credibly verify that you got them all? For the full list of 15, CLICK HERE. In a follow-up article, Goldberg offered some additional detailed analysis making explicit why he expects the Russian deal will not work here. Also making a strong case that the Russian deal is unworkable is American strategic analyst Max Boot, here and here.

Finally, British analyst Charles Lister, who has spent considerable time in Syria, offers a detailed survey of the crucial issue of the division of “goodies and baddies” among the anti-Assad rebels. Lister explores the considerable complexity of that question – noting the proliferation of small and large insurgent groups, their various larger allegiances and the diverse situation in different parts of the country. But he notes, in the end, that while al-Qaeda-type Jihadi extremists are a minority, albeit a very sizeable one, so are the moderates looking for a democratic Syrian future, with the bulk of the insurgency in between also Islamist, if not as extreme as al-Qaeda. For this essential resource to answering the question whether “moderate” rebels can still come out on top, CLICK HERE. Jonathan Spyer also had an excellent post on the different Syrian insurgents, in which he categorised the groups similarly to Lister but is less hopeful than him that some of the groups labelling themselves Islamists can be coopted into a democratic future.

Readers may also be interested in:


How to Make the Best Out of Russia’s Flawed Plan for Syria

Michael Singh

Foreign Policy, September 10, 2013

President Obama should use Moscow’s gambit as an opportunity to turn international and domestic momentum back in his favor on Syria, even while recognizing it for the cynical feint that it assuredly is.

That Russia has intervened at the last moment in an effort to halt a U.S. military operation in the Middle East should come as little surprise. Moscow engaged in similar last-ditch efforts prior to the first and second Gulf wars, likely in pursuit of twin objectives: preserving an ally, and thus Russian influence, in the region; and derailing the use of force by the United States and thus defending the principle of noninterference, which Moscow rigorously applies to other powers but disregards in its own conduct, especially in its own neighborhood.

While Russia’s motivations today may be the same as those in these previous cases, however, the situation facing President Barack Obama is quite different from those facing his predecessors. With a U.S. military operation lacking much international support and Obama’s request for authorization facing an embarrassing defeat in the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate, the Russian initiative may be viewed as a veritable godsend by the White House. Obama will claim Moscow’s offer is the result not only of tough diplomacy toward Russia, having canceled a planned summit with President Vladimir Putin just last week, but also of “credible military threats” toward Syria.

In reality, however, the credibility of American military threats was fading fast as congressional defeat loomed for Obama’s request for authorization to strike Syria. What the Russian gambit truly provides the White House, therefore, is an opportunity to gain some room for maneuver and to attempt to shift the momentum on Syria back in its favor. Turning Moscow’s offer to the U.S. advantage, however, will take realism and diplomatic savvy.

On its face, the Russian proposal is wildly impractical. Even if Bashar al-Assad’s regime cooperated with chemical weapons (CW) inspectors, locating and gaining access to Syria’s CW amid a civil war, in which control of territory is contested by a variety of armed groups and Damascus’s authority is limited, would be near impossible, and destroying those CW would take a long time. But Assad’s track record suggests that he will not cooperate. He has blocked the efforts of U.N. weapons inspectors to date and has also failed to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency access to suspected Syrian nuclear weapons sites. Just like Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, Assad could be expected to make every effort to preserve his CW capabilities and evade inspectors.

More fundamentally, Syria’s conflict is not about chemical weapons, their use, or their disposal. Obama chose to identify CW use as a red line for U.S. intervention and has perplexingly made the elimination of Assad’s CW capabilities a goal that is apparently independent from broader U.S. goals in Syria, such as the “political solution” that the administration frequently asserts is necessary.

But Assad’s CW use is just one way in which the Syrian conflict has spun out of control and threatened U.S. national security interests. The conflict has yielded a shocking toll of fatalities and refugees, has threatened to destabilize Syria’s neighbors, has amplified the terrorist threat in the region, and has placed an enormous economic and security strain on countries like Jordan and Turkey. It has also exacerbated tensions between regional powers and strains between the United States and its regional allies.

Even if the Russian plan succeeded beyond all expectations in eliminating Syria’s CW stockpiles, in its current (admittedly inchoate) form it holds little prospect for addressing the broader strategic and humanitarian threats posed by the Syrian conflict. Indeed, the fact that it has drawn quick support from Assad’s key allies — Russia and Iran — suggests that it is judged by them as a means to rescue Assad rather than hold him accountable.

Despite these flaws, the Obama administration can attempt to turn the Russian proposal to its advantage. The American response should not focus on Moscow’s position, but the interest in avoiding U.S. military intervention implicit in that position. To that end, the United States should insist that the elimination of CW not take place amid the conflict, but be part and parcel of a satisfactory resolution of that conflict. Such a resolution must include accountability for President Assad and key members of his inner circle for the use of CW and their brutalization of Syria’s civilian population. It is of little purpose, after all, to deter or punish CW use if by implication we excuse the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians. It must also include an international mechanism to protect those civilians going forward.

Meanwhile, Obama should ask Congress to authorize him to use military force if this diplomacy fails to produce a satisfactory result, while not overly restricting that authorization in a way that puts the president in a weak position vis-a-vis Moscow and Damascus. This would not only put some real credibility behind U.S. military threats, but it would offer an approach more likely to attract support. The Obama administration’s previous proposal was so narrowly focused in an effort to gain domestic and allied support that, ironically, it was also easy to reject, being connected not to vital strategic interests but rather to abstract “international norms” that the international community was nevertheless unready to enforce.

The Russian proposal may indeed be a product of an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, just as Obama’s original “red line” proclamation may not have been preplanned or well thought through. It is also a disappointment to the Syrian opposition and some U.S. allies in the region, who hoped a U.S. strike would turn the tide against Assad.

But the reality was that prospects for such a strike were diminishing, and U.S. policy on Syria was careering toward a nadir. Obama should thus seek to use Moscow’s gambit as an opportunity to turn the international and domestic momentum back in his favor on Syria, even while recognizing it for the cynical feint that it assuredly is. Doing so will require diplomatic forethought and skill that the administration has not so far demonstrated and must now produce.

Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute.

Back to Top

15 Questions About the Increasingly Crazy Syria Debate

This has been a particularly manic day on the Syrian front. Secretary of State John Kerry sent the debate into overdrive first by promising that any American attack on Syria would be “unbelievably small,” and then with his suggestion — quickly and surprisingly accepted in broad strokes by Russia — that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad could avert an attack by giving up his chemical weapons. Here are some questions now worth asking:

1. Is Kerry a national-security genius, or a guy who says whatever half-baked idea comes to mind, or both?

2. Why are the Russians seemingly so ready to aid Kerry and President Barack Obama by helping relieve Syria of its chemical weapons? Since when is Russia interested in helping the U.S. out of a jam, even if it burnishes its own reputation in the process?

3. Do these early signs that Russia might be interested in making a deal to avert an attack prove that threatening to attack was the right thing to do?

4. Who is making American policy on Syria? Kerry or Obama?

5. Why would Assad give up his chemical weapons? He saw what happened when Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction program, which is to say, he lost some of his deterrent power.

6. How do you possibly verify that Assad has given up all of his chemical weapons? The Syrian regime possesses hundreds of tons of these munitions.

7. Does Syria get to keep its biological weapons under this still nonexistent deal?

8. If the U.S. gives up the idea of an attack, would the remaining moderate rebels, so dispirited, start moving toward the al-Qaeda column?

9. How do you secure and transport all of these chemical-weapons components in the midst of a horrifically violent civil war?

10. Even if the theoretical strike was intended to be “unbelievably small,” why would the U.S. tell Syria this?

11. A related question: Who goes to war not to win?

12. Let’s just say that Assad gives up his chemical weapons. Does that mean he gets to kill civilians in more prosaic ways indefinitely? Is that it?

13. If Assad’s behavior is even somewhat analogous to Hitler’s, as administration officials (and surrogates like Senator Harry Reid) are suggesting, then how is it possible to argue for anything other than Assad’s total defeat?

14. At a certain point in this drama, will any of the various Arab countries that want the U.S. to bomb Syria then go do it themselves?

15. How did the U.S. get so bollixed-up by the tin-pot dictator of a second-tier Middle East country?

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

Back to Top

Syria’s insurgency beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys

Charles Lister

Foreign Policy,

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate on September 4 that “bad guys” and “extremists” make up between 15 and 25 percent of the Syrian insurgency. The reality is far more complicated — with enormous significance for the prospect of U.S. military action.

First of all, the crucial point: the insurgency simply cannot effectively be divided into two simple, easy to digest, categories of “moderate” and “extremist.” While estimates vary considerably, there are currently thought to be as many as 1,000 individual armed groups in Syria, representing approximately 100,000 fighters. A great deal of these groups are small and operate on a particularly localized level, but there are a number of alliances and lines of loose command and control that provide an inkling of clarity (to follow later). 

However, while numbers and force deployment capabilities are clearly very important, they are not the be all and end all. Like it or not, groups on the more extreme end of the spectrum, particularly those affiliated with al Qaeda, have proven remarkably adept at spreading their military resources across large swathes of territory, joining battles at the pivotal moment, and exploiting their superior organizational structures to establish political control and influence over territory. While some moderate groups have also presented tight levels of organization and command and control, jihadist and Salafist insurgent groups have by and large been notably more effective in this regard.

The conflict itself also cannot be presented as a single dynamic or theater of battle. Instead, as the number of involved groups has proliferated and the armed conflict is now well into its third year, countless unique and sometimes interdependent theaters have emerged, each with its own distinctive characteristics and inter-group dynamics. While all micro theaters see distinctly local insurgent groups operate, nearly all of them involve larger single militant organizations or multi-group alliances which have come to operate on a more national basis, hence the countless unique dynamics across the country.

Terminology is also a hugely tricky issue. Technically speaking, a very large portion of rebel fighters in Syria would identify themselves as “Islamists” fighting a “jihad.” But contrary to popular Western interpretation, this does not make them “extremists” and certainly not “al Qaeda.” As has often been the case in complex and bloody sub-state conflicts, those involved — both directly (insurgents) and indirectly (civilians) — often turn to religion as a support mechanism. The rapid proliferation of Islamic names for many of the original Free Syrian Army (FSA) units back in 2011 illustrates this clearly.

However, all of that said, the conflict as a whole — in terms of what it represents to those involved within it — has in 2013 become especially fueled by sectarian foundations. While a very large majority of fighters ultimately still aim to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad for the perceived betterment of Syria, the rhetoric now underpinning their fighting has become visibly sectarian. Even the most senior Western-backed Syrian Military Council (SMC) commanders now frequently use vitriolic anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite terms in their statements. The suspected chemical attack outside Damascus early on August 21 appears to have concretely established this sectarian reality across the board.

All of the above highlights, on a basic level, the conceptual elements of complexity sometimes missing or misused in the current increased coverage of Syria. But the most important element is the specific nature and composition of the insurgency itself. When Kerry claimed that “extremists” comprise between 15 and 25 percent of the insurgency he also stated that the total Syrian insurgent force numbers between 70,000 and 100,000. That is somewhere between 10,500 and 25,000 “bad guys” — no small number. Secondly, while it’s clearly not possible to determine exactly what groups purportedly make up this 15 to 25 percent figure, the reality is that the proportion of insurgent groups whose politico-religious objectives particularly counter those of the West is higher.

The most “extreme” portion of the insurgency is represented by the two al Qaeda-affiliated groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Combined, these groups command an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, distributed in at least 11 of Syria’s 14 governorates. Both have pledged bay’a (or allegiance) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and are explicitly hostile to the West. In addition to this figure, there exist at least 10 smaller al Qaeda-like militant groups in the north and east of the country, whose combined strength likely numbers between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters.

The most notable addition to the likely “bad guys” list is Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI) and its Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) coalition. A conservative estimate of SIF’s total strength (which is dominated heavily by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya) is 15,000 to 20,000 fighters, distributed across 11 governorates. While its forces coordinate in operations across the country on a daily basis with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, its political charter, published in February, explicitly calls for an Islamic state and rejects the concept of democracy due to its man-made nature.

So that’s potentially between 24,000 and 33,000 “bad guys,” or 33 to 34 percent of the insurgency — already more than the 15 to 25 percent cited on September 4.

Another potential addition is Suqor al-Sham, which consists of an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 fighters, primarily active in the northern governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. Again, Suqor al-Sham regularly fights alongside HASI, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS; explicitly rejects democracy; and calls for an Islamic state. Now to add to the complexity, Suqor al-Sham is a member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a loose alliance of at least 19 Islamist and Salafist groups, whose leader is Suqor al-Sham commander Sheikh Ahmed Abu Issa, but whose ultimate line of command — at least on paper — runs to the Western-backed SMC and its leader Salim Idriss. However, ideologically and strategically, Suqor al-Sham has aligned itself a great deal closer to HASI in 2013 and Issa has become visibly more hardline in his statements and rhetoric. He most recently labeled the suggested formation of a Syrian National Army by Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chief Ahmad al-Jarba as a project of the “munafiqeen” (a derogatory term literally meaning hypocrites, or those who disobey Islam).

So that’s potentially 32,000 to 42,000 “bad guys,” or 42 to 46 percent of the insurgency.

That likely represents the core of what the West should perceive as those armed groups within Syria that contradict sharply with who it might accept as potential future Syrian decision makers.

But again, it is more complicated than that. While much attention has been given in recent weeks to newly delivered weapons supplied to “moderate” groups under the command of Idriss — such as Chinese HJ-8 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) — these appear not to have been delivered to some of the largest groups purportedly under SMC command but rather to smaller units perhaps more tightly under SMC control. These seemingly avoided larger groups are all members of the SILF: Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Kataib al-Farouq (in addition to Suqor al-Sham). With a combined estimated force of between 24,000 and 26,000 fighters, these three additional groups represent a significant contribution to the complete Syrian insurgent picture.

While all three groups are certainly less hardline than Suqor al-Sham, HASI or SIF, ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra, they have all on separate occasions rejected democracy in the Western-accepted sense as a concept and expressed a desire for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. While Kataib al-Farouq’s popularity and strategic significance has declined over the last 12 months, Liwa al-Islam is a critical player in the battle for Damascus and Liwa al-Tawhid is an essential source of authority in Aleppo. Whether a decision has been made not to direct (as much or any) overtly valuable resources to these three groups is impossible to confirm, but considering their potential strategic impact in their respective theaters, it’s a trend that is hard to ignore. After all, adding them to the potential “bad guys” list would result in the total reaching between 56,000 and 68,000 fighters, or 68 to 80 percent of the insurgency. However, there is a noteworthy chance that such groups could in the future be co-opted more closely under SMC command, should certain carrots be waved their way.

This might all appear as an attempt to present Syria’s insurgency as a melting pot of extremists — but it is most certainly not intended as such. Some of the groups mentioned here have adopted pragmatic approaches to stating their political objectives and the exact nature of their desires is a much debated subject. Moreover, I have spoken with members of all groups mentioned in this article and as shocking as it may sound to some, the large majority of them seem, outwardly, to have what they perceive to be Syria’s best interests at the forefront of their minds, at least for now. However, the tactics and rhetoric employed by many are clearly unpalatable by most Western standards.

While it is incontrovertibly the case that jihadists (or “extremists”) represent a minority of the total insurgent force, true genuine “moderates” — by Western standards of supporting the establishment of a non-religious, liberal state preferably founded on democratic principals — also do not represent a majority. The largest portion of insurgent fighters in Syria is in fact represented by “Islamists,” some less socially and politically conservative than others. Crucially, this does not preclude them from being potentially valuable leaders of a future Syria or even as future friends of the West, but it is important that this crucial element of the opposition is included within the minds of today’s policymakers.

Looking further into the future, these complex dynamics appear to be gradually generating a discernible division between those who support the SNC’s vision for Syria’s future and those who oppose it and want a notably more Islamic state. Neither of these end points should necessarily be seen as right or wrong and it is by no means impossible that they couldn’t be combined. However, debates are raging in Washington D.C., Paris, and elsewhere over the hugely significant question of whether or not to militarily intervene in Syria. Even a limited punitive form of strikes will have very significant consequences in Syria and within the international system. As such, a full and accurate picture of the insurgent landscape is crucial. This article has only provided a basic macro level overview and may nonetheless still present a complex picture — but delve deeper and this complexity only multiplies.

Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) is a terrorism and insurgency analyst based in London. This article was written solely in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of his employer.

Back to Top


Palestinian Red Crescent workers from Al-Najjar Hospital in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip (Image: Shutterstock)

Hamas’ impossible casualty figures

Mar 28, 2024 | Update
455daec3 C2a8 8752 C215 B7bd062c6bbc

After the Israel-Hamas ceasefire for hostages deal

Nov 29, 2023 | Update
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organisation's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO (Screenshot)

Horror on Video / International Law and the Hamas War

Oct 31, 2023 | Update
Sderot, Israel. 7th Oct, 2023. Bodies of dead Israelis lie on the ground following the attacks of Hamas (Image: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News)

Israel’s Sept. 11, only worse

Oct 11, 2023 | Update
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (r) gets his long-awaited face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israeli Government Press Office)

Netanyahu meets Biden, other world leaders, in New York

Sep 27, 2023 | Update
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who gave an address on Aug. 28 threatening the US and laying out the Iranian-led axis's new "unity of the arenas" doctrine. (Photo: Shutterstock, mohammad kassir)

US-Iran prisoner swap deal set to go through

Sep 12, 2023 | Update



IDF spokesperson, reserve Lt. Col. Peter Lerner in conversation with AIJAC’s Joel Burnie

View of the ICJ courtroom at The Hague (Image: UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

AIJAC deplores ICJ Advisory Opinion

Screenshot 2024 07 19 At 1.21.58 PM

Defying expectations: Silent settlement freeze and outpost demolitions

The “encampment” at the University of Sydney (Image: X/Twitter)

A university is for a multiplicity of ideas

UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese (Image: Shutterstock)

Israel’s hardest war is fighting the lies waged against it


IDF spokesperson, reserve Lt. Col. Peter Lerner in conversation with AIJAC’s Joel Burnie

View of the ICJ courtroom at The Hague (Image: UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

AIJAC deplores ICJ Advisory Opinion

Screenshot 2024 07 19 At 1.21.58 PM

Defying expectations: Silent settlement freeze and outpost demolitions

The “encampment” at the University of Sydney (Image: X/Twitter)

A university is for a multiplicity of ideas

UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese (Image: Shutterstock)

Israel’s hardest war is fighting the lies waged against it