Chemical weapons deal is not enough for Arab world

Removing some of Bashar Al Assad's arsenal may satisfy America but it does not solve the fundamental problem of the civil war in Syria.

A month has passed since the Syrian regime attacked civilians with chemical weapons in two Damascus suburbs. In those four weeks, the chorus of international condemnation reached a crescendo, only to fall back to a diminuendo.

First came the dire warnings of impending missile attacks, the breathless reporting of the movements of Mediterranean warships, warnings from Damascus and arguments in London. It appeared that, finally, the Assad regime had crossed “red lines” and would face serious consequences.

And then everything faded away, as a deal was mooted that would allow Bashar Al Assad to continue slaughtering civilians, so long as he stopped slaughtering them in one very particular way. That wasn’t the way the Russians and Americans phrased it, naturally, but that was the effect.

Removing chemical weapons from Mr Al Assad’s arsenal merely allows him to continue his war: in just the four weeks since Ghouta, more Syrians have died at the hands of the regime’s conventional weapons than died on September 11, 2001.

Dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons might satisfy America and other Western powers, but it does not solve the fundamental problem of Syria’s civil war. The primary objection that the Arab world has with Mr Al Assad is his war against his own people; the means and methods of that war are a separate, though related, issue.

For the Arabs, the civil war is the issue, not the chemical weapons. And there appears to be no political will in the West to solve that issue. And if that is the case, the Arab world may have to take matters into its own hands.

What is happening in Syria is part of a much larger moment in the history of the region.

America’s power in the Middle East is fading. The political manoeuvring of Vladimir Putin over Syria is merely one in a series of events that have shown America’s unwillingness to fight for its allies and its interests.

That is not because America lacks the strength to do so – one need only glance at the destructive technology sailing through the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf to realise that. But it lacks the will, both from its politicians and from its people. The consequence of two unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has soured American politicians on military adventures and created limits on what they imagine can be achieved.

As the long pivot to Asia continues, the power balance of the region is being redrawn. Iran is seeking to expand its influence and will take heart from America’s unwillingness to drag itself into another Middle Eastern conflict. Russia, especially, recognises the vacuum, and has moved to ensure it can, at least in part, fill it.

Without America’s involvement, the West in general is retreating. Britain and France are more interested in selling fighter jets to the Arab world than in seeing their own jets in the air above it. That marks a significant change, and not an altogether bad one. After all, if the West will not solve the conflict at the heart of the Arab world, why cannot the Arabs do so themselves?

The military might exists, as well as the human, political and financial resources. But two things are lacking: a history of intervention without war and a framework for taking that decision.

Arab nations have rarely interfered openly in each others’ affairs. (Covert interference is another thing altogether.) The idea that Iraqi or Egyptian troops might march into Damascus, even under a mandate from the Arab League, seems fanciful.

In recent years, when Arab nations have involved themselves in the affairs of their neighbours, it has usually been under a UN mandate (UAE troops in Afghanistan) or a Nato umbrella (Qatar in Libya), or a straightforward invasion (Iraq into Kuwait).

Doubtless the Assad regime in Syria would see any outside interference in its affairs as a straightforward invasion, which is where the second element comes in, a framework that would allow the Arab world to take such a decision, to sanction military action against one of its own.

The Arab League has been ineffectual: although it agreed to give Syria’s seat to the rebels, it could not agree to external intervention. A beefed-up Arab League might, in time, find the political will to solve such a situation.

What would be better, and currently possible, is a collective security agreement, such as the one that underpins the GCC’s Peninsula Shield. Such an agreement could cover countries not bound by the cultural connection of the Arab world, such as Turkey and even Iran.

A collective security agreement would also be a further moment of self-determination, of ending the (imposed) reliance on the West for military action. As the United States leaves the region, other powers will seek to enter – and frankly the past hundred years have seen enough outsiders ride through the region. America’s involvement in the Arab world has not always been bad, but external intervention in internal affairs is always detrimental, creating dependence and shaping local politics to the agenda of foreign powers. In the past century, it has not been the exception, but the rule.

The Syrian conflict represents a chance to renegotiate some of the long-standing assumptions of the region. If America cannot be relied upon, the Arabs will have to start looking to solve the conflict themselves.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: September 23, 2013 04:00 AM


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