Return of the Cold War?



Syria seems to have turned into a battleground for the United States and Russia with the two countries taking opposite sides in the ongoing civil war in that country.

In more than two and a half years of domestic political instability, the Assad regime has proven to be quite resilient in the face of armed struggle by a host of Syrian armed groups some of whom apparently support democracy promotion but in reality want to bring down the Assad regime.

Russia has been a long-standing external ally of the Syrian government and it appears determined to prevent the fall of the Assad regime. Victory of the opposition fighters will dry up Moscow’s arms bazaar and may lead to termination of its naval facility in Syria.
The United States, on the other hand, has never been friendly to Syria and rather extends full support to Israel in latter’s territorial disputes and other political conflicts with the former. Ever since a popular uprising against president Bashar al-Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has repeatedly called for ‘regime change’ in Syria.

However, Obama’s public statements have not been matched by adequate measures on the ground, including credible assistance to the anti-Assad armed factions that could have hastened the exit of Bashar al-Assad from power. The planned US exit from Afghanistan, post-regime-collapse chaos in Libya, failure of democracy experiment in Egypt and suspected involvement of Islamists, including Al Qaeda operatives among the Syrian opposition did not enthuse the CIA and the Pentagon to get deeply involved in the Syrian domestic conflict. 

While political pressure mounted on president Obama to do something to stop widespread death and destruction in the Syrian civil war, ground realties did not allow a credible strategy to evolve that could assemble and train a full-bodied and united opposition force against the Assad regime.

On the other hand, political and military patronage of Russia and the threat of Russo-Chinese veto in the UN Security Council against any hard military action against Syria have emboldened the Assad regime. The international community, including the United States, remained a largely inactive bystander when the death toll from the Syrian conflict crossed one hundred thousand, the number of internally displaced population crossed two hundred thousand and Syrian refugees abroad crossed four hundred thousand.

The United States woke up when on August 21 more than 1400 people died of chemical weapons attack in Syria. President Obama quickly deduced that Assad regime traversed the ‘Red Line’ drawn by him and vowed punitive military action to prevent him from using such weapons of mass destruction in the future.

Power play

A CIA report in June had mentioned that chemical weapons had been used multiple times in Syria, but none then remembered the ‘Red Line.’ Was it the scale of death in the August attack that alerted Washington? Why did not larger number of deaths from other weapons ring the alarm bell? Unfortunately, Obama’s intent to punish Assad and Russian president Putin’s tenacity to protect Assad had little to do with death and devastation in Syria and more to do with power play than the ‘chemical weapons.’

The entire focus seems to be centred on who used these weapons.  Washington and Moscow stand uncompromisingly on the opposite side of the dividing line. Significantly, while the US leadership blames the Assad regime and the Russian leadership places responsibility on the rebel groups, the UN inspectors don’t not have the mandate to determine the user of the chemical weapons!

Three days of hard bargaining in Geneva between the American and the Russian team of experts, technicians, diplomats and legal advisors produced a four-page document to facilitate destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile in a short span of time. The agreement is remarkable in the sense that Syria would join the Chemical Weapons Convention, US military strike against Syria has been averted and the Cold Warriors have successfully  managed a temporary truce.

But this agreement raises more questions than it answers. Who used the chemical weapons long banned by the international community? Should the user be accountable and punished? And, if yes, how? Moreover, president Assad has resumed military strikes against the opposition forces. The Obama administration reserves its unilateral rights to resort to military strike, if Assad does not comply. President Putin sticks to his opposition to military measures to enforce any violation of the agreement.

No sooner was the Geneva agreement announced, US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Lavarov began to interpret the document differently. It reminds one of the bad old days of the Cold War. It is doubtful if this temporary truce would in any way lead to resolution of the Syrian conflict. But it is certain that new complications will arise on the way to dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons infrastructure and destruction of the weapons.

Soon there may be demand by Russia and its allies that Israel be made accountable for its chemical weapons. The US and its allies may not believe that Assad has honestly declared all his weapons stockpile and has not hidden weapons somewhere. Complications related to ‘declaration, inspection, destruction and verification’ of chemical weapons may not only worsen the Cold War-type suspicion-spiral but divert the attention from the horror and consequences of the Syrian conflict itself.       

(The writer is chairperson, US studies programme, JNU)

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