Creating new perspectives since 2009

From dismantling chemical weapons to dismantling Syria

January 24, 2014 at 5:25 am

After 30 months of violence, Syria appears to have collapsed and is almost lifeless. More than two-thirds of the population are in danger and much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. Internally, parties to the conflict are nearing a state of attrition. The impasse is such that neither side can claim to have won. Externally, countries are gathering to pick up the pieces for their own agendas.

While the regime and main opposition grab the headlines, various sub-groups are also involved, each with its own priorities, affiliations and objectives. Some have been created by the regime or brought in from outside, others have been attracted to Syria to wage “jihad”.

The use of chemical weapons and the agreement to hand them over to the “international community” reflects the nature of the crisis itself. Just as the opposition realised that it cannot reach a solution with the regime because the conflict has moved from being a political dispute to an existential crisis, the government in Damascus has discovered that it will need external support to contain the rebellion across the whole country.

With the threat of an international attack against the regime for using chemical weapons still looming over Syria, the opposition has to organise its plans for “what next”. Bashar Al-Assad, meanwhile, has problems of his own and cannot control his own officers never mind the use of such weapons.

Both sides, though, are trying to turn the chemical weapons issue to their own advantage. The opposition hopes to persuade the world that it is a united body which has stayed on its feet despite everything that the regime has thrown at it. In this scenario, the regime appears to be on its last legs, leaving the whole of Syria open to the opposition.

Not surprisingly, the Assad regime looks at things differently. Its positive attitude towards handing over the chemical weapons is, it hopes, an acknowledgment that it has a role to play in any solution and gives a guarantee that Assad and his minions won’t be pursued in the international courts for the crimes that they have committed.

Of course both parties are looking to their supporters around the world to back them in this, making the chemical weapons crisis a bargaining chip in discussion on the conflict as a whole. The future of Syria and who rules it is subject to how this plays out.

Dismantling the chemical weapons is thus at the forefront of a complicated process which will cover all aspects of the Syrian government, not just the military and security agencies. It is naïve to think that the weapons issue can be dealt with in isolation. The international community has room to manoeuvre in the talks about who will do what and where in terms of the future government of Syria.

Furthermore, the reality is such that these matters cannot be separated in the end from the reality of the crisis and the social division that is taking place in Syria. The conflict has created major distrust in Syrian society; nobody has been spared from this, with the result that Syria’s national fabric has been torn apart. It will take an enormous effort to recreate the nation as a place where different sects and factions are able to live together in peace again.

All of the groups have their external sponsors; the Sunnis look to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar as their allies who can be trusted to help them to secure the best possible terms in a conflict-ending agreement. The Alawites and Christians trust Russia and Iran and do not see anyone better than those two countries to achieve and guarantee their rights.

Practically speaking, this will require a caretaker council or suchlike made up of a variety of states to supervise the implementation of agreements. Goodwill is essential but there are many traps lying in wait along the way, some of them put in place by the Assad regime. Leading the country out of a disastrous war was never going to be easy and Syria cannot return to “normal” without massive international and regional support and cooperation, which cannot be guaranteed by any one party.

Thus we need to see a solid consensus between all concerned parties, especially those with blood on their hands, if Syria as a state is to be saved and not allowed to disintegrate into a series of statelets, each ruled by proxy on behalf of the current group of self-interest sponsors.

The fact of the matter is that the talks between Russia and the West will not and cannot focus solely on the chemical weapons issue; they will have to look at the end-game and the bigger picture of what is going to happen to the Syrian state. The whole of Syria is on the table awaiting dissection; is the state itself going to be dismantled as well as its chemical weapons?

The author is a Syrian writer. This article is a translation of the Arabic text which appeared on Al Jazeera Net on 20 September, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.