Syrian gas attack: diplomatic solution a precursor to ending civil war?

2013-09-27 08:35

Ironically, Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack on 21 August in which an estimated 1 400 people lost their lives had opened the door to a diplomatic solution, not only for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, but for the raging civil war as a whole.

The latest diplomatic effort came from none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran, with its new president, Hassan Rouhani following Russia’s lead in offering to broker talks between President Assad and those who oppose his regime. Since being elected in June, President Rouhani has done his utmost to reposition Iran as a more moderate regional power, pursuing constructive engagement with the international community. And thus far, he has done just that with the highlight being his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) on Tuesday.

President Rouhani’s new tone, which is in stark contrast with that of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been cautiously welcomed by the West knowing full well that the Iranian people are suffering under crippling international sanctions.

Of importance, however is that those at (or near) the negotiation table, including Iran and Russia, agree that the chemical attack was a crime and cannot be tolerated. Furthermore Russia and Iran seem to be in agreement with United States (US) President Barack Obama that the Assad-regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons should be surrendered and destroyed. This in itself is significant since neither Iran nor Russia is publicly convinced that President Assad ordered the attack. However, it would be fair to say that Russia is only brokering the deal to get its main ally in the Middle East off the hook in exchange for the destruction of the latter’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

Although the UN Security Council has reached agreement on the elimination of the chemical weapons stockpile on Thursday, the problem remains in finding a mechanism to hold President Assad to his commitments. The heart of the matter is the so-called ‘trigger clause’ which stipulates automatic punitive measures against President Assad should he not comply with the draft resolution. President Obama is in favour of immediate punitive steps, while Russia will not allow any steps to be taken without further authorisation from the UN Security Council, in addition to not allowing any military action.

But in spite of the threats of a military strike, it seems as if negotiators are in agreement that the diplomacy route is the only viable one at this time. President Obama took it a step further at the UN by stating that an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons should be the first step in a broader diplomatic effort to put an end to the civil war. The irony is that President Assad’s alleged sarin gas attack could have signalled the beginning of his final undoing. Faced with losing Damascus to rebel forces a panicky President Assad is said to have ordered the attack. The effects were horrific, refocusing the world’s attention squarely on his regime, and in turn leading to the current diplomatic process. The tragedy of course, is adding another 1 400 lives to the more than 100 000 that have already been lost.

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