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Tensions over Ukraine give Al-Assad smokescreen to avoid surrendering his chemical weapons

March 15, 2014 at 1:05 pm

During the three blood-soaked years of the Syrian civil war, Russia and the US have rarely seen eye to eye on the best way to tackle the crisis. A rare moment of agreement came last August, when the two countries struck a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Aimed at heading off US military strikes against President Bashar Al-Assad’s government, the deal meant that Damascus agreed to destroy all chemical weapons facilities and surrender 1,300 metric tonnes of toxic agents. It has until June 30 to do so.

The scheme has already faced several delays. Is it now under even greater threat? It has been suggested that international tensions over Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine crisis and occupation of Crimea could jeopardise cooperation over Syria.

Of course, the two conflicts – in Ukraine, and in Syria – are ostensibly unrelated. What relates them, in the eyes of western powers from London to Washington, is the common thread of Russia’s involvement. The decision by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s to send tanks to the Russian-majority region of Crimea has angered western governments and inflamed geopolitical tensions. There has been talk of sanctions against Russia by America and the EU.

But US government officials have insisted that these tensions will not impact the ongoing push to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. “I believe Russia remains committed to the object here, which is the removal and destruction of all of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile,” the Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing about Syria and Ukraine on Thursday.

It is telling that the Senate hearing – originally scheduled to focus solely on the civil war in Syria and its impact on terrorist activity in the Middle East – added Ukraine to the agenda, despite the fact that the two conflicts are in different parts of the world, and have sprung from different conflicts. This points to a shift in political focus from the war in Syria to concern about an east-west confrontation in Ukraine and elsewhere. A similar trend has been noted at the United Nations, where diplomats have expressed concern that Syria is no longer the number one priority, with focus shifting to Ukraine. Speaking to Reuters, one senior Western diplomat said that the crisis in the former Soviet republic has “sucked a lot of the bandwidth for diplomatic attention” that would have gone to Syria.

This is frustrating for those pushing for further peace talks. The UN-Arab League peace mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who orchestrated the last (failed) round of talks at Geneva, is reportedly frustrated at the apparent unwillingness, or inability, of the US and Russia to put aside their differences and push for a diplomatic solution. This week, the UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon urged Russia and the US to work together to revive peace talks.

Of course, the crisis in Ukraine is just the latest in a series of delays and setbacks to diplomatic cooperation over Syria. At the Senate hearing, Burns admitted that the US has been “frustrated” by the Russian government’s unwillingness to push harder for concessions from Al-Assad, such as increasing access to humanitarian aid. Russia, with the aid of China, has so vetoed three UN resolutions that would have condemned Al-Assad’s government and threatened it with possible sanctions.

But this is a particularly critical moment: the Syrian government has repeatedly delayed the handover of chemical weapons, and united action from the US and Russia is required to keep the pressure up. A Russian foreign ministry official this week said that the chemical weapons could be removed by 13 April and that there was no need to adjust the timeframe. However, concern remains. “If you want to know what will happen in Syria you must know what will happen in Ukraine,” Abbas Daher, a columnist for a Lebanese news site, wrote recently. “The common denominate between these two issues is the struggle between Russia and the west.”

Ominous warnings of a new Cold War might be premature, but events in Ukraine have certainly done nothing to ease an already tense relationship. The immediate concern is that the Al-Assad regime will use the international tension over Ukraine as a smokescreen while it avoids surrendering its chemical weapons. Whether the US and Russia can avoid this and continue to work for this common goal remains to be seen.

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