Chemical Weapons and Ceasefires: Reflections on a Trip to Damascus, Syria

Chemical Weapons.

I had long postponed a trip from Beirut to Damascus that I needed to do for research purposes. The research study, written with a colleague of mine at the American University of Beirut and in the process of being finalized, analyzes the high visibility Joint Mission established between the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to verify the elimination of all declared chemical weapons in Syria.

The OPCW is the secretariat that administers the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed in September 2013 following a US-Russian agreement that averted a potential US attack on Syria.

In an August 2012 response to a media question about US military intervention in the Syria war, President Obama had famously responded, apparently unscripted: “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” This red line appeared to be crossed when chemical weapons were utilized in an attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August 2013. The images of the civilians caught up in this attack were seared into the minds of all who pay attention to this continuing war.

Under massive pressure from the intervention hawks not only in the US, but among its allies in France, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia among others, Russian President Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov negotiated a deal with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva that would avert an attack in exchange for Syria’s consent to eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons. President Bashar Al-Assad accepted this and Syria promptly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention that authorizes the OPCW to oversee the dismantling Member States’ chemical weapons programs.

The UN Security Council acted quickly to confirm this deal with a detailed resolution that, though not under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (which would allow use of force as punishment), snuck in coercive language to ensure Syria understood it had to “cooperate fully” with both the OPCW and the UN.

The formal establishment of the Joint Mission in October 2013 was a unique endeavor. It was the first time the UN had worked officially in tandem with a technical, non-UN agency, and the first time the OPCW had to verify the elimination of a chemical weapons stockpile in the midst of a civil war. The UN provided the security and logistical expertise, as well as the general know-how of operating within conflict zones. For its part, the OPCW shouldered the technical side of the operation by assessing Syria’s declaration of its chemical assets and then verifying their removal and elimination. This Joint Mission worked closely with the Syrian authorities throughout the operation that lasted one year and was eminently successful within the terms of its mandate: 99% of the declared stockpile had been eliminated by the time the Joint Mission ended its work in September 2014.

Recent persistent allegations of small-scale chlorine and mustard gas use have prompted Syria’s enemies to claim that Syria still holds on to undeclared chemicals, while the Al-Assad regime and Russia have long accused militant rebels and “terrorist” groups such as ISIS of using such weapons. OPCW inspectors have now returned to Syria and a new Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) has just been authorized by the UN Security Council to actually name the users of chemical weapons in Syria.

Having travelled to New York and The Hague with my colleague to meet with senior UN and OPCW officials respectively, this study clearly necessitated interviews with senior officials in Syria itself. My hesitation to take the 130-kilometer drive from Beirut to Damascus was perhaps understandable given the catastrophic war and horrendous suffering there. However, various colleagues in the UN, friends, and businessmen I knew assured me the road was safe and there were regular crossings all the time.

City skyline including Omayyad mosque and souk, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Damascus, Syria, Middle East

In Damascus.

The Damascus trip itself was longer than it should have been. The main official Lebanon-Syria border at Masna’a was packed. I was told that on Sundays in particular pilgrims crossed over to visit the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque, which, according to Shia’a belief, contains the grave of Zaynab, the daughter of the Imam Ali and the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima. The familiar chaotic scenes at the Lebanese border crossing — unruly queues, lots of frustration and too few officials manning the booths — contrasted sharply with the relatively orderly yet colder, and somehow more threatening demeanor of the very lowly-paid officials on the Syrian side.

The trip from the border to Damascus was somewhat uneventful except for the apparently recent proliferation of army checkpoints. Two queues, as always: one for the ordinary people, another for the military, diplomats or those with special dispensation. At one checkpoint there was clear tension, and some chaos. I learned later that there was intelligence concern that someone was trying to smuggling in of possible car bomb that day, and quite rightly no chances were being taken. Everybody and everything was being searched.

Damascus itself was both eerie but oddly normal as far as I could tell from such a short trip. Having lived through the civil war in Lebanon, this was a familiar feeling. Unlike in Lebanon at the time, here it was quickly apparent to me that the “state” was still very much functioning: traffic police were issuing parking tickets, bureaucrats and officials went about their business as usual. The many checkpoints, and occasional sound of rocket fire haphazardly hitting the city, reminded me that despite some semblance of normalcy, Damascus was, in fact, part of the war and under pressure from militants operating in adjacent suburbs. As a friend informed me, electricity services were being cut up to 15 hours daily, even in the affluent neighborhoods, and Lebanese-style generators were increasingly frequent. Public sector salaries were low, while certain goods were getting more expensive. The sanctions imposed on Syria were certainly biting, but it seemed to me, they would not drastically change the calculus of its inhabitants who generally fear the Islamist assault.

My first interview was a long discussion with deputy foreign minister Dr. Faysal Miqdad. He was in charge of all matters dealing with chemical weapons, including the contact person for the Joint Mission leadership. What was most impressive, in the literal sense of the word, was his (and the other officials I spoke to) resolve, even defiance. He was adamant that Syria accepted to dismantle its chemical program not out of weakness — or fear of a US attack — but out of strength, and an expression of good will by President Bashar Al-Assad to Putin.

Dr. Miqdad explained that Syria’s program was a leftover from the Cold War days when the Soviet Union was weakening and Syria felt threatened by some regional states, especially Israel which has a huge undeclared nuclear arsenal. Syria developed the program, he told me, as a strategic card for deterrence in this regional game, not one that it ever planned to actually use. He was adamant that foreign-backed “terrorists” were behind the use of chemical weapons.

We talked about the puzzling situation whereby the attack in Ghouta — only few kilometers from where we sitting in his office at the foreign ministry — coincided precisely with the visit of the “Sellstrom Mission,” the first technical mission sent by the UN in response to the Syrian governments allegations that rebels had used chemicals against an army barracks in the Khan al-Asal area in the northern city of Aleppo.

The Khan al-Asal attack was in March 2013, but it took around five months for this mission, lead by the Swedish academic Ake Sellstrom, to actually land in Syria. The Ghouta attack happened, and Sellstrom was re-directed to investigate this rather than the earlier one in Aleppo. Miqdad claimed that it was folly for a “clever government” to “shoot near its own feet” in a way that was so clearly against its own interest. He was adamant that groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra have been given chemical weapons, channeled to them from states such as Turkey and Qatar.

But when I pressed him about how he responded to a leading hypothesis in international circles — there has yet to be any conclusive evidence as to who was behind the attack — namely that a local officer nearer to Ghouta might have ordered the use of chemical weapons without the knowledge of the central government, he rejected such a notion out of hand. It would show that there was division among the ranks.

In further meetings I had focused on the role played today by Staffan de Mistura, the Swedish-Italian diplomat appointed as the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to Syria in 2014. De Mistura’s first plan to push for local cease-fires, including “freezing” the conflict in Aleppo, failed. His new plan is to initiate a series of working group meetings between Syrian officials and opposition groups in order to pave the way for an acceptable and realistic transition process that included both regime and opposition figures. The groups would engage within four thematic clusters: safety, reconstruction, political/legal, and military/security. An international contact group, or as one person told me “De Mistura’s Friends,” would support this process and include Russia, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the latter excluded from prior UN gatherings. From what I could gather, this seems like an obvious good move for the government to engage in — nothing much to lose, but further cementing its indispensible role with regard to the international community. For the opposition, however, this brings some division as some figures accept the new realities while others firmly reject negotiating anything that includes Bashar al-Assad.

As I returned to Beirut, my impression from this admittedly skewed and all too brief visit was that Bashar al-Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon. The grand narrative has swung his, and Russia’s way, as attacks on the Assad regime’s legitimacy has made way in international circles to the paramount importance of combatting the “terrorism” of such groups as ISIS and Al-Nusra; and the acceptance that a weak state is better than a non-existent one. Libya looms large, as does Yemen today, and Iraq previously.

On my way back to the chaos that is Lebanon, my only thoughts were how none of the officials I spoke to mentioned the unimaginable suffering and fears of Syrian civilians, their dispossession and exile.

Karim Makdisi teaches Political Studies at the American University of Beirut and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. Makidis is a co-editor of two forthcoming volumes – Land of Blue Helmets: the United Nations in the Arab World, co-edited with Vijay Prashad (University of California Press) and Interventions in Conflict: International Peacekeeping in the Middle East, co-edited with Rami Khouri and Martin Waehlisch (Palgrave-Macmillan).