Keeping Up With the Crisis in Syria

Professor Jonathan Laurence of B.C. shares important takeaways from the complicated situation in Syria.

Image Credit: Associated Press

Image Credit: Associated Press

Today marks the second day of negotiations in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to determine a process through which Syria would give up its arsenal of chemical weapons.

Prompted by the use of sarin gas, a lethal, colorless, odorless chemical weapon, in the ongoing Syrian civil war, President Obama has threatened the use of military force against the Syrian regime—a move that has been blocked in the U.N. Security Council by Russia, Syria’s most prominent ally. Instead, President Vladimir Putin has pressured President Assad to cede control of Syria’s chemical weapons to the international community—a move Assad is only willing to make if the U.S. lifts its threat of military attack and stops arming the Syrian rebels.

It’s a rather complicated situation, with high stakes and multiple key players. For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the news, we asked Jonathan Laurence, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, to discuss and point out important factors in the current situation:

1. Although the key players—the U.S., Russia, and Syria—seem to have found a common ground, it remains unclear what the outcome will be.

The use of chemical weapons has come to the forefront of the ongoing crisis, but even if the international community succeeded in disarming Syria of its arsenal, the country’s government and rebels are engaged in a civil war. Future intervention on behalf of their respective allies—military force or another option—therefore, is not out of the question, according to Laurence.

“Everyone has stepped back from the brink here, but this could be a rather drawn out process. It will be interesting to see to what extent any kind of ceasefire or anything else will take hold, given the presence of inspectors who will be locating and destroying these weapons,” he said. “The fact that no one is withdrawing their warships and that the sale of weapons seems to be increasing, so there’s no reason to expect any kind of lull or breakthrough here unless it comes to a point where the great powers that are facing off here directly deal with war.”

2. Despite ongoing negotiations in Geneva, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia remains tense.

Earlier this week, President Obama addressed the nation on the situation in Syria, revealing a plan to postpone a vote in Congress to authorize military force, but maintain pressure on Assad and a position to respond if diplomacy fails.

“America is not the world’s policeman,” said Obama. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

The following day, The New York Times published an op-ed by President Putin, in which he wrote:

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

This statement, according to Laurence, is a direct challenge to Obama’s agenda.

“[Putin] fairly directly asked the American people whether they really are convinced of the tendency to intervene that the U.S. government has been pursuing over the last ten to twelve years,” he said .”The irony here—or rather the weak point in his argument—is that Obama is a reluctant warrior. It’s not like he’s showing up like some cowboy in the West Wing, ready to go. This is clearly a case that Obama’s very deliberate about and that, to me, seems to be a bit off the mark by Putin.”

3. The situation brings up questions about the U.N. Security Council’s functionality.

In his address, President Obama stated his belief that the U.S. should not be the world’s policeman and Laurence agrees.

“It’s the United Nations’ job,” he said. “I think that the U.N. Security Council—if it were functional—would be the form of choice [for dealing with this type of situation], but the reality is that the two veto powers of Russia and China have managed to exclude this sort of intervention from U.N. blessings.”

4. The U.S. played a key role in the situation’s development, but now the pressure is on Russia. 

“It’s pretty clear that the credible threat of an American attack is what moved things here,” said Laurence. “But Assad has to deliver his end of the bargain and Putin is ultimately accountable for it, as Syria’s sort of main patron and one of the architects of the deal. The burden is on Russia to ensure that Assad complies.”

If Assad chooses not to comply, the possibility of military intervention could be put back on the table.

“It makes it easier for the U.S. to say that this isn’t working and pursue other options,” said Laurence.

5. Despite remaining disagreements, the involvement of the U.S. and Russia in the situation is significant on a broader scale.

Although the U.S. and Russia disagree on who actually used the chemical weapons, both countries agree that their use is unacceptable.

“I thought it was interesting that even as [Putin] asserted that the chemical attack must have been carried out by the rebels, he affirmed Russia’s cooperation—or their intention to cooperate—on the destruction of the chemical arsenals,” said Laurence. “Maybe this emergent consensus about weapons destruction is a breakthrough. The novelty here is that maybe we would see some declarations about specific kinds of weapons.”

Indeed, yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon received a letter from President Assad in which he agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, a 1992 U.N. agreement banning the development, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.

“This is part of the more promising side of the U.S.-Russian relationship—the rejection of nuclear arms,” said Laurence. “I could imagine that being a growth for the United Nations, even though the responsibility to protect civilians will always be a rather subjective matter which each country will see through its own lens.”