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S. Azmat Hassan Headshot

Diplomacy in the Syrian Civil War

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The eagerly awaited UN Inspector's report saw the light of day last Monday. The report confirmed a conclusion that was already known, which was that chemical weapons had been used on a horrific scale in the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013. It was not in the remit of the report to assign blame for this atrocity, the like of which has not been seen since Saddam Hussein gassed his Kurdish citizens a quarter century ago. The international community did not take any serious action against Saddam apart from the ritual condemnation that such an event would have invoked. Times have changed now. The stakes are much higher in the Syrian Civil War. The anti-Assad group among the Arabs consists of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and some other Arab states. Among the non-Arab states also opposed to Assad are Turkey and Israel. Almost all the western countries led by the United States wish to see the back of Assad, not the least because of the mass-killings of civilians undertaken by his regime in the civil war. Assad appears to have had little compunction to fire his lethal weapons in densely populated neighborhoods. To compound matters, the chemical attack against civilians was both heinous and unacceptable. The video coverage aroused widespread outrage. The UN report appears to have indirectly confirmed that it was the Assad regime and not the rebels that had fired the rockets and shells containing Sarin gas. Even after the issuance of the report, doubts about its findings are being expressed by Russia, a staunch Assad ally. However, no matter what spin allies of Assad, such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, put on the report the majority opinion would condemn Damascus for what it has perpetrated on its citizens. This atrocity is being called a war crime and it is quite possible that down the road the long arm of international law in the shape of the International Criminal Court, could seek accountability from the Assad regime.

It remains to be seen, whether the UN Inspectors report will change the opinion both in the U.S. Congress and among United States citizens. Earlier polls have suggested President Obama and his team would have lost the vote in Congress, concurring with him to launch a military strike against the Syrian dictator. Both Secretary Kerry and President Obama had vociferously claimed that Assad was responsible for launching chemical weapons against this own people and according to Kerry, killing 1,429 of them, but their advocacy was not enough. Since there was no smoking gun and the UN report has not assigned culpability, it is doubtful that the numbers in Congress or among U.S. citizens at large would change in favor of a military strike. In any case, this question has become academic for the time being, since the U.S. and Russia have accepted a deal brokered by the latter, whereby in exchange for Assad surrendering his entire chemical weapons stock, which would subsequently be destroyed under international supervision, the U.S. would forgo a military strike against Syria. The U.S. continues to insist, however, that the military option remains on the table if Syria reneges on its undertaking to give up its chemical weapons. To underscore this point Obama has ordered his naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean to remain in an offensive posture vis-à-vis Syria.

It appears that the current diplomatic talks at the UN offer relief to all the parties directly involved: President Obama who appeared not to be very enthusiastic about launching a military strike the end result of which in the region, could not be predicted; Assad who was dreading a military strike which could become the precursor of a prolonged aerial punishment by the United States, which would have significantly degraded his military assets; and Russia, which has a huge stake in preserving its client, Assad, who is beholden to them as his political protector and who provides them a strategic naval base on Syrian territory.

The downside of multilateral diplomacy at the UN Security Council is not only the maddeningly slow pace of decision-making, but even more noticeably, the huge constraints in obtaining unanimity among the competing interests of the U.S., Russia, China, UK, and France -- the five horsemen of the Security Council apocalypse. Russia and possibly China, for different reasons, will remain committed to propping up President Assad notwithstanding his depredations against his people. How this impasse will be overcome between the U.S. and the West, on the one hand, and the pro-Assad Russian and Chinese on the other, is difficult to visualize at this stage. Perhaps this near conundrum will be put in the lap of the Geneva Conference, which is to decide an end to the civil war. Any type of prognostication about the outcome of Geneva, if it comes about, would be premature at this stage.

S.Azmat Hassan, an adjunct professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, is a former career diplomat for Pakistan. Among his diplomatic assignments, he was also Ambassador for Pakistan to Syria, Malaysia, and Morocco.