US and Russia deal on chemical weapons shifts debate over the Middle East

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Under last week’s US-Russia deal addressing the use of chemical weapons near Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must account for his country’s chemical weapons and hand them over to the international community for destruction by mid-2014. Questions still remain over the use of military force against the regime if another chemical attack occurs. The deal has been praised by a large contingent of the globe, although not by Syrian rebel groups, as a win for diplomacy over military intervention.

The Obama administration has, perhaps, crumbled under the pressure of Congress, Russia and the American public all demanding non-intervention, while many Syrians and some politicians such as Senator John McCain were demanding military action. President Obama only just avoided congressional humiliation, familiar to the likes of David Cameron, by an accidental triumph in poolside diplomacy by John Kerry and Vladimir Putin.

Russia seems to be the real winner from the deal. Its successful diplomatic bargaining has meant that in a month, Russia has gone from one of the most condemned states in the international system to one of the most praised. News about Russia’s brutal human rights abuses, particularly against its LGBT community, has largely been forgotten in light of praise for Putin’s anti-interventionist piece in the New York Times. Former White House advisor Pat Buchanan argued that “Vladimir Putin made a better case against US strikes in Syria than the President of the United States did.”

Vladimir PutinFor Syria itself, dealing with the issue of chemical weapons hardly scratches the surface of this complex and intensely heated conflict. Chemical weapons constitute a horrific, inhumane and ultimately illegal weapon of war. However, the conflict in Syria transcends the current Western debate about chemical weapons that has overshadowed much of the complexity of Syria’s civil war.

The UN estimates that upwards of 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. 6000 of them were children, many of whom were subjected to torture. 1.7 million Syrian refugees have now fled to neighbouring countries, displaced by the violence of war. Many rebels have made the point that chemical weapons are not the issue.

“Removing the criminal tools is one matter, and holding the criminal accountable is another,” said Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council. That is even assuming that all criminal weapons have been removed from the hands of those who should be held accountable.

Whether attacks are employed with chemical weapons, conventional bombs or guns is irrelevant — the sheer number of people being killed in the conflict is what matters and what needs to addressed holistically by the international community. The US-Russian deal on chemical weapons does not end the Syrian war. It simply dictates which weapons may not be used, to which the answer from those carrying out killings is: there are plenty of other weapons that can, and with very little response from the international community.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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