Back in late August, the world was abuzz with news of a potential U.S. military strike on Syria which Russia strongly opposed. Only a month later, we are not only not going to bomb Syria, but Russian President Vladimir Putin may have laid the groundwork for a long-term peaceful solution. North by Northwestern is here, as always, to guide you through what happened.
What’s going on in Syria?
In March 2011, Syria erupted in protest during the “Arab Spring”, a wave of revolutionary protest across the Middle East. The Syrian protests called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has governed Syria since 1971, and the Ba’ath Party, named for its nationalist and anti-imperial ideology. Assad’s police and military forces responded violently. In July 2012, the Red Cross formally designated the ongoing violence as a civil war.
What involvement does the United States have in Syria?
At the moment, U.S. involvement is minimal. A lack of support for military action in Syria, the inevitably messy nature of a civil war and the protests of Russia (we will get to that later) made President Obama hesitant to take decisive action. The nature of the conflict – pro-democracy protestors and rebels against an autocratic state – led Obama to call for Assad’s resignation back in 2011. However, it was not until June 2013 that Obama moved to aid the rebels by shipping weapons to them, and that aid only recently arrived.
Last year, fears arose that government forces in Syria might use chemical weapons on the rebels, as Syria has the fourth largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world and is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international arms agreement that bans the use of chemical weapons. Obama covered Syria policy in a surprise appearance at a White House Press Conference, in response to both those fears and the increasing prominence of Syria on the campaign trail. He set a stronger stance on Syria by declaring, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime…that a red line for us is if we see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” Both international media and the White House itself later simplified this “red line” down to the simple use of chemical weapons.
So did Syria cross the red line?
On Aug. 21, Syrian government forces launched an offensive outside Damascus. Anti-regime protestors and rebels claimed that the attack involved the use of chemical weapons, and graphic eyewitness videos seemed to support their claims. The Obama administration chose to delay before responding, calling for a full investigative probe into the attack. For its part, the Syrian government blamed the rebels while Russia (still getting to them) only noted that the international community lacked proof of who committed the alleged attack.
Since then, United Nations chemical weapons inspectors have confirmed that the nerve gas sarin was used in the attacks outside Damascus. Since Syria is known to maintain large stockpiles of sarin, many in the international community (Russia remains the primary exception) have taken the U.N. report as confirmation that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks.
Has Washington responded yet?
President Obama has responded, but not in the way commentators thought he meant when he talked about the “red line.” Thanks to the aforementioned lack of support from the American people and members of the Democratic Party, the White House was slow to act – which turned out for the best.
While Obama made the case for a strike to Congress, Russia used its leverage on the Assad regime to pressure it into giving up its chemical weapons. Syria accepted the deal and the U.S. and Russia laid out a framework. So far, it actually seems to be working.
Wait, why does Russia care so much? And what sort of leverage does it have?
Russia cares because it has a very close relationship with Syria, which manifests itself in a number of ways. For instance, Russia’s last foreign military base outside of the former U.S.S.R., which is also its only naval base on the Mediterranean, is located in Syria. Russia also sells arms to Syria, and the purchases go upwards of one billion dollars some years. That trade has only increased with the current civil war in Syria. Russia maintains economic ties with Syria in a variety of other areas, including energy and steel. On a more existential level, Russia regards any intervention that violates a country's sovereignty as a dangerous precedent for future international action.
It remains unclear which of the above factors, if any, was the primary driver in Russia's decision to pressure Syria towards a diplomatic solution. It is equally unclear what pushed Syria to bend to that pressure. Whatever the case, Russia certainly has a stake in Syria and has made its impact.
So what happens now?
On the ground, the United Nations inspectors have returned to Syria to investigate other claims of chemical weapons use. Syrian rebels are also claiming that Syria is simply transferring weapons to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, a move which will no doubt only increase tension in U.S. ally Israel over the ongoing conflict.
Meanwhile, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council finally came to an agreement on Thursday regarding the Russian proposal. However, the measure does not include automatic penalties if Syria fails to give up its chemical weapons. Unfortunately, these talks do not mean the fighting in Syria has ceased. While Russia, the U.S. and the world may have found a solution to the chemical weapons problem, not much has changed on the ground in Syria.