The 193 signatory nations to the convention will assemble from November 19 this year at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for the latest periodic review of the chemical weapons convention.
As reported today in Science, this is an important opportunity to get some key things back on track.
The chemical weapons convention is a legacy of the end of the cold war. The collapse of the Soviet Union reinvigorated the long-dormant chemical weapons control process. This culminated with most nations signing and ratifying the chemical weapons convention, which came into force in 1997.
Each nation is responsible for the destruction of its own stockpile of weapons (either alone, or with the help of others), with compliance monitored by OPCW. So far about 96% of declared stocks of chemical weapon agents have been eliminated, including all of Russia’s declared stockpile.
Most nations accept that chemical weapons are an anachronism, with only limited military value against an enemy of similar technological sophistication.
But there has been a rise in recent years in the use of chemical weapon agents against civilian populations, as in the Syrian civil war, and as tools of assassination, such as in the murder of Kim Jong-nam and the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in the UK.
So are chemical weapons climbing out of the grave we thought we had consigned them to?
It’s important to clear up a common misconception about the chemical weapons convention and how it handles lethal chemical agents.
Under the convention, the use of the pharmacological effects (what the chemical does to the body) of any chemical to achieve a military outcome (death or permanent disability) makes that a chemical weapon.
This means that novel agents, such as the Novichok (or A-series) chemicals alleged to have been used against the Skripals, are illegal, not because of their structure but due to the attempt to use them to kill.
This definition can create some complexities. If we take as a given that many chemicals are potentially lethal – it’s the dose that makes the poison – how do you regulate compounds that are likely to be used as weapons?
How should these be distinguished from those that could be fatal, but aren’t typically applied for ill-purpose? For example, the anticancer drug mustine – also known as nitrogen mustard – is a schedule 1 weapon under the chemical weapons convention (under the codename HN2).
Riot control agents are those such as pepper spray, 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (better known, slightly erroneously, as CS-gas). These compounds are designed to cause the victim discomfort. But the effects dissipate soon after the victim is removed from exposure – similar to if you get capsaicin in your eyes while cutting chillies, you can wash the compound away with lots of water or milk.
These agents are only lightly regulated under the chemical weapons convention. Their use is allowed as part of normal law enforcement, but prohibited in war.
Different to these, incapacitating agents are defined as those that cause the victim to lose consciousness, or otherwise become systemically incapacitated – but the effects of these are not reversible by removing exposure.
Examples include chemicals that cause massive sensory hallucinations and prevent the victim from recognising reality.
There is much debate about the ultimate safety of riot control agents, but in general they are seen as safe unless incorrectly used. On the other hand, a Russian incapacitating agent is believed to have caused many of the fatalities during the 2002 Moscow theatre siege.
So how can these agents be legal, while the agent used in Salisbury is immediately considered illegal? What is an appropriate level of chemical force that should be acceptable when applied to a person as part of civilian policing?
What level of research into, or stockpiling of, such compounds would suggest the goal is no longer to develop countermeasures, but is part of an offensive chemical weapons program?
The CWC was written to outlaw these things, but has its success only moved the goalposts? These are open questions that the review should address.
Questions about how responsible a scientist is for the use of their work probably go to Fitz Haber and beyond. The 1918 Nobel Prize winner is generally considered the father of modern chemical warfare for his suggestion that the Imperial German Army use chlorine, the first lethal chemical weapon of World War I.
Today there are several questions about how scientists should interact with the world, using their knowledge to educate the public through the media, while avoiding drawing attention to possible misuses of that knowledge (or allowing their messages to be manipulated to cause panic).
Is it a greater good for society for me to explain that nitrogen mustard (from the example above) treats cancer, than the risk that someone will now try to steal some mustine from the oncology clinic to misuse it?
There is also the problem of dual use technologies. These are techniques that can equally be used develop a new pharmaceutical, or could be applied to develop a new nerve agent.
How much regulation of day-to-day research and commerce is acceptable to prevent those who would do us harm having access to materials and knowledge?
In the 20 years since the ratification of the CWC, we have made discoveries and improved access to technologies that may make it easier to create a truly effective improvised chemical weapon.
The chemical weapons convention has almost reached the initial goal of the signatories, the elimination of chemical weapons. Now the convention needs to move with the times, to prevent backsliding from the prevailing culture that considers chemical weapons to be unspeakably barbaric.
As the war in Syria comes to its final stages, the future of the country and the whole region hangs in the balance. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad consolidates his power by defeating all opposition, resistance runs the risk of transforming into a new wave of organised terrorism.
My analysis at the beginning of 2018 predicted an imminent end to the conflict, with Assad victorious over the rebels. The final stage of the war was foreseen to be fought over the critical city and province of Idlib, the stronghold of the rebel groups. The capture of Idlib would cement Assad’s control of Western Syria demarcated by the Euphrates River.
Idlib and Daraa were the first places where the civil war broke out back in 2011. Daraa fell to Assad’s forces in July 2018. Inevitably, Idlib was next in line.
Since 2015, Idlib has served as a repository of insurgents escaping Assad’s forces. The strategy of Assad was clear: to overwhelm opposition forces in every city with Russian air support; destroy as many of the armed rebels as possible; allow remaining armed rebels to move to Idlib as a temporary safe haven and then launch a final attack on Idlib to wipe out all armed opposition. The plan followed exactly this path, and worked.
Millions of displaced civilians have also moved to Idlib, escaping the war elsewhere. The United Nations has warned an attack on Idlib could be “the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century”.
In July 2018, the world and the US administration waited nervously to see what the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit would bring for Syria. But the Syria issue was overshadowed by the issue of Russian meddling with the 2016 US elections and Trump astonishingly choosing to believe Putin rather than his own intelligence aides over the matter.
The relative insignificance of Syria during the summit, coupled with Trump’s lack of strategic insight, must have reconfirmed with Putin that the US was continuing to take a back seat in Syria. Soon after the summit, Assad and Russia intensified their preparations to attack Idlib.
Other key people in the US administration were not as uninterested as Trump. Security adviser John Bolton, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as well as other European powers issued repeated warnings against the use of chemical weapons.
In response, Russia has launched a PR campaign claiming that the US and Western bloc countries used a staged chemical attack as a pretext to strike Assad. At the same time, Russia was busy reinforcing its naval forces in the Mediterranean by adding 10 more battleships to its sizeable fleet.
Having pacified the US and its Western allies, Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Tehran in early September to decide the fate of Idlib and its inhabitants. Putin publicly rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for a ceasefire.
About a week later, Putin and Erdogan met. Putin announced an agreement between Russia and Turkey to create “a demilitarised zone of a depth of 15-20km, with the withdrawal from there of radically minded rebels, including al-Nusra”.
No-one is sure who the “radically minded rebels” are, but Turkey will act as a guarantor in the demilitarisation process, relying on its significant influence over the rebel groups.
Turkey had no choice. It was facing the real possibility of another wave of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians adding to the 3.5 million Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey. More importantly, escaped jihadist operatives were likely to regroup in Turkey, creating a massive internal security threat to that country.
As the first group started to leave the demilitarised zone on September 30, a small group of refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon. These are certainly good signs, but they don’t mean the war has ended. There is not even an official ceasefire in place, and the UN continues to issue warnings that Syria is still too dangerous a place to live and operate.
What is certain is that all parties, including Turkey, the US and some opposition groups, have now accepted the inevitability of Assad staying in power as the only legitimate government in Syria. This reality will have two main ramifications.
Firstly, once totally free from armed opposition, Russia through the Assad regime is likely to challenge the US presence in Syria. Russia is not in Syria for a benevolent reason, but chiefly to ensure the permanence of its access to the Mediterranean Sea. A permanent US presence in Syria clashes with this objective.
By the end of 2018, and certainly in 2019, demands for the US to leave Syria will intensify – an eventuality that Trump clearly articulated back in April 2018. The US is likely to withdraw from Syria on the condition that Iran’s influence in the country is contained. Russia and Assad will make promises, but once the US is out, Iran will come back in.
Secondly, the biggest issue facing Syria is the deep feeling of resentment within a large segment of the population. They will question why the war was fought, creating 5 million refugees, displacing 6 million and killing more than 400,000, given that Assad is still in power in the end and Syria is no closer to being a democratic country advancing human rights and progress.
For some, the resentment will remain inward. But for a significant minority, the resentment will brew and turn into an unstoppable rage, perhaps manifesting in the familiar form of suicide bombing squads. They will reorganise themselves and launch a campaign of terrorism focusing mainly on easy civilian targets. This will only serve Assad’s narrative that fighting terrorism has reinforced his claims to legitimacy in the eyes of Syrians and increasingly within the international community.
The campaign of terrorism may inevitably spill over to Russia for staunchly supporting Assad, and to the US and its Western allies for allowing Russia to take the upper hand in Syria, subverting all attempts to get rid of Assad.
Civil war in Syria may be coming to an end with Assad firmly in power, but the resentment it generates is likely to evolve into a new wave of terrorism.
For the past two years, Paul Brereton, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge and Army Reserve major general, has been conducting an investigation into the conduct of members of the SAS in Afghanistan. While the findings are not yet known, leaks from within the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have suggested that as many as five cases involving unlawful killings have been uncovered.
Much of the media commentary surrounding the allegations has centred on the potential criminal prosecution of these alleged offences. But a further legal issue can arise from investigations of this kind – the alleged victims (or their families) might bring civil claims against Australia’s armed forces, seeking compensation for their suffering.
Cases of this kind have occurred in other countries. In the United States, a number of high-profile habeas corpus petitions have been filed against the government by people who claim they were unlawfully detained by US armed forces on suspicion of being insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Claims for damages have also been successfully brought by former Iraqi detainees against private military contractors over their alleged torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
One of those claimants, Yunus Rahmatullah, was arrested by British forces in Iraq in 2004 on suspicion of being a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist organisation with links to al-Qaeda. He was “rendered” by British forces to the custody of the US army in Afghanistan, where he was detained for over ten years without charge or trial and, he alleges, tortured.
Rahmatullah denies ever being a member of a terrorist organisation. He has made a well-publicised claim for compensation from the UK government, under the country’s Human Rights Act.
We are all exposed to potential civil liability in our day-to-day lives. If we drive negligently and cause an accident, for instance, we may find ourselves liable to pay compensation to those we have harmed. The same is true of public institutions and authorities, such as hospitals and the police. Few would suggest this is unfair or unreasonable.
However, the extension of civil liability to the armed forces is controversial. Former Army officer Bill O’Chee, for instance, recently argued forcefully against such liability:
Service personnel who commit crimes are already subject to military criminal proceedings, and this is rightly so. However, exposing them to claims for personal injury claims would be perverse and entirely unjust.
The very idea that highly paid lawyers in comfortable courts in Australia can understand, let alone litigate these cases, is fanciful at best.
How absurd it would be for our servicemen and women to be subjected to damages claims in these circumstances, let alone be asked to find the money for legal costs and a possible damages order against them.
Such civil liability claims have never been brought against individual ADF personnel in Australia before. This would be new legal territory. And nobody is seriously suggesting these soldiers should personally bear the burden of defending civil claims arising from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Rather, any potential claims are likely to be defended by the Commonwealth.
This is the way civil claims against police officers in Australia are typically resolved. In such cases, individual officers will often be required to give evidence as to their version of events. Yet the costs of defending the case, and the compensation (if any) paid to the plaintiff, are borne not by the individual officers, but by the relevant public authority.
Despite the controversy surrounding them, there are still good reasons to allow civil claims of this kind to proceed.
First, criminal and civil claims serve different purposes. A successful criminal prosecution may leave a victim with a feeling of vindication, but it typically does not result in monetary compensation. As a result, it may matter little to victims or their families if the soldiers responsible are professionally disciplined, since they may receive no compensation for their loss.
Secondly, the notion that civilian courts are not competent to adjudicate on military matters is seriously problematic.
Nobody could deny that military personnel are forced to carry out their duties in extremely difficult conditions. It is also true that many lawyers and judges have difficulty appreciating the fraught circumstances in which military decision-making occurs.
But the answer to these difficulties is not the abandonment of such claims altogether. Judges are often faced with the task of making difficult decisions about matters on which they are not experts. Civil justice would simply not work if courts threw up their hands whenever they were faced with such challenges.
Finally, if the Commonwealth were somehow able to avoid liability for potential civil damages in these types of cases, the ADF may have less incentive to conduct military operations in ways that safeguard the rights of civilians caught in conflict zones.
Given the limited accountability for military decision-making in the public sphere, the possibility of accountability in a civil court would promote stricter adherence to international conventions on war.
Many of the victims who may bring claims of this kind are unlikely to excite public sympathy. For example, one of the claimants in the UK cases, Serdar Mohammed, was arrested while leaving a ten-hour firefight with British troops, discarding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and ammunition on his way.
But we shouldn’t allow our moral judgement of claimants like Mohammed to erode our commitment to the rule of law. Public authorities, and especially our armed forces, should be held accountable for their actions to the limits imposed by law.
During the second world war, a young Aboriginal soldier, Private Clarrie Combo from New South Wales, exchanged mail with Mrs F. C. Brown from Loxton, South Australia — a white woman whom he had never met.
Very few letters penned by Aboriginal soldiers who served in either of the two world wars survive, yet one of Clarrie’s letters has endured in what might seem a surprising context. Mrs Brown contacted the young soldier after seeing an advertisement calling for volunteers to “adopt” Aboriginal soldiers. His reply was printed in her local newspaper, and its survival provides us with a rare opportunity to learn about military service from an Aboriginal soldier’s perspective.
Clarence Combo was born in Wardell, New South Wales, on 14 September 1919. Young Clarrie grew up in a harsh environment — Kinchela Aboriginal Boys’ Training Home near Kempsey. Consistent with government plans to assimilate Aboriginal people into white Australian society, children like Clarrie were forcibly removed from their families. At Kinchela, boys were called by their allocated numbers rather than names. Identities and cultures were stripped away.
In a country where discriminatory legislation and practices precluded Aboriginal people from earning a fair wage, voting, marrying non-Aboriginal partners, buying property or entering a public bar, it is not too difficult to imagine why some young Aboriginal men signed up for the military when war broke out. An estimated 1,000 Aboriginal soldiers served in the Australian Imperial Force as black diggers during the first world war. By the mid-20th century it was easier for Aboriginal men to sign up, so around 3,000 served Australia during WWII.
Shortly after WWII began, the Melbourne-based Aborigines Uplift Society, founded by non-Aboriginal activist Arthur Burdeu, created a comforts auxiliary for Aboriginal soldiers. The idea was that women could “adopt” an Aboriginal soldier. They would correspond with him and arrange comfort parcels to be sent to him at the front.
In the Society’s August 1940 Uplift newsletter, Burdeu explained how “native women have not the resources to do as their white sisters, though they are already at work”. In Queensland, for example, children at the Purga Aboriginal Mission sewed underpants, toilet tidies, calico bags and hussifs (sewing kits), and knitted socks, mittens and balaclavas. Yorta Yorta women and children at the Cummeragunja Reserve (located in New South Wales) were also involved in knitting for the war effort.
Newspaper advertisements ran across Australia inviting women to contact Burdeu about “adopting” an Aboriginal soldier. With at least one son-in-law serving Australia, Mrs Brown may have felt compassion for those men whose families could not afford to send them parcels.
On September 25, 1941 the Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record published one of Clarrie’s letters to Mrs Brown under the headline “Aboriginal’s Appreciative Letter”. Clarrie opened his correspondence with Mrs Brown by thanking her for writing to him. He wrote: “it is very nice of you to write to someone you do not know”. At a practical level, Clarrie advised Mrs Brown that he wore size seven boots, as she had offered to knit socks for him.
The young private’s letter provides a unique perspective on his experiences serving abroad. “I was in action for the first time in Greece,” he told his correspondent. He described Greece as “the nicest country that I have been in since leaving Australia”, then marvelled at having seen snow for the first time.
However the horrors of war included being “attacked practically every day by the German planes”. He told Mrs Brown how “a few of my pals were killed over there … There were German planes in the sky all day long and they were always bombing”.
What’s left out of correspondence can also be telling. In War Dance: A Story of the 2/3 Aust. Inf. Battalion A.I.F., Ken Clift provides an insight into racial attitudes amongst some of the men, telling of an altercation between two Australian soldiers, an Aboriginal one named Clarrie and an Indian or Afghan soldier, Tom. As the men argued heatedly, Tom allegedly called Clarrie: “You black bastard”. Clarrie was said to have retorted, “Well Tom, you’re no bloody glass of milk yourself.” Clarrie’s correspondence with Mrs Brown omits any mention of such tensions.
Over five years’ service, Clarrie’s tours of duty included Egypt, Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and New Guinea. He suffered illness and injuries. In 1941 he caught sandfly fever, an ailment commonly suffered by soldiers fighting in North Africa. His “Proceedings for Discharge” notes that Clarrie received two war injuries, one to his right forearm and the other, a gunshot wound inflicted in New Guinea in June 1945, to his left forearm.
Clarrie’s war experiences included seeing some of his mates injured or killed. He would also have been expected to fire on enemy combatants. However, his correspondence with Mrs Brown, replete with anecdotes about foreign lands and peoples, highlights how being part of Australia’s war effort in the mid-20th century also gave him insights into other places and cultures.
Fortunately, Clarrie survived the war. He was one of five Aboriginal soldiers welcomed home to Wardell by the Cabbage Tree Island Women’s Guild just before Christmas 1945. By the mid-1960s Clarrie was chairing the Aboriginal Cooperative at Cabbage Tree Island and participating in national conferences advocating equal rights for Aboriginal people.
The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:
major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.
The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.
Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:
We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.
Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:
Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.
The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).
The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:
Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.
The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.
The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to President Trump:
The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.
And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.
However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.
If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?
Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:
Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?
It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.
The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.
Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:
The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.
Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.
With the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.
A head-spinning series of events in the past few weeks have taken us from the United States pulling out of Syria, to analysts predicting the beginning of a third world war.
What has really happened in Syria, what are the ramifications of the joint strike from the US, France and Britain, and what can we expect from the key players?
Certainly, the mess in Syria and heightened tensions in the Middle East make us all fear an impending world war, especially when both the Russian and US presidents engage in a round of chest-thumping. Despite this, there is no certainty that a world war will be triggered from the Syrian conflict.
The latest chemical attack, allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian government, followed by the US, British, French retaliation, is really about aligning an unpredictable Trump with the Syria policy of the state and military establishment in Washington.
A world power like the US is seldom reactive. It often uses events as key moments to implement new policies or shift policies. An apparent correlation of events with policy implementation justifies the policy in the eyes of internal constituents and the wider international community.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Russia has followed an open and consistent policy: declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the legitimate government of Syria, always support his regime to ensure it doesn’t collapse, and morally justify its involvement as a struggle against terrorism. The unspoken policy is to build up a challenge to Western dominance over not only the Middle East, but geopolitical world order.
Yet, the US, and by extension Western policy on Syria, was tentative, unclear and seemed to change course over the seven-year conflict.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to opposition groups, hoping they could muster enough power to dismantle Assad.
The Obama administration shifted its policy after a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 prompted it to push for a United Nations resolution demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles. This in turn gave impetus to peace talks in Geneva. Apparently, the stockpiles were not destroyed, as we have seen more chemical attacks.
Obama admitted his strategy failed, as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Russian President Vladimir Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. Efforts to make progress in the Geneva talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to make any meaningful progress even as late as 2017.
In the early months of his presidency, the expectation was that Trump would change the US policy on Syria. It was uncertain what trajectory it would take, and when it would come to pass.
Not much happened until yet another chemical-gas attack by Assad in April 2017. The US responded with a massive missile attack, taking out 20% of Assad’s air force. The result was that the Trump administration committed to a more active involvement in Syria and the complete dismantling of the Islamic State presence in the country, but not necessarily the removal of Assad.
It is now apparent there was a fundamental difference between Trump and the key people in his administration in their understanding of the US’ Syria policy.
For Trump, it was always about eliminating IS. On April 3, he announced that the US’ primary mission in Syria was “getting rid of ISIS”. Since this had now been completed, he could bring the troops home.
Yet, in December 2017, Defence Secretary James Mattis said the US would continue its presence in Syria as a “stabilising force” beyond IS.
In January 2018, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the US would stay in Syria beyond IS, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iranian and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
So, Trump’s withdrawal intentions, or rather the public announcement, came as a surprise to his own administration as well as the international community. In response, the US special envoy for the global coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, said:
We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we are going to complete that mission.
Other officials from the US administration and military made conflicting statements.
Trump’s withdrawal announcement opened the ground for other players to assert their plans. On April 4, Russia, Iran and Turkey held a summit in Turkey, at which Putin announced:
We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria.
The trio’s plan included an intensified Turkish operation in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to clear all terror groups from Syrian border, including the YPG,” the Kurdish military force that was backed by the US in its bid to eradicate IS from Syria.
It seemed Syria would be left to Russia, Iran, Turkey and Assad. Until, of course, the most recent chemical attack in Douma, a suburb near Damascus, on April 7. The attack was blamed on the Assad government even though it vehemently denied it, and there were allegations of rebel involvement.
Importantly, the chemical attack conveniently served the faction in the US administration advocating for a greater involvement in Syria. Their arguments pushed Trump towards retaliation. In a matter of days, Trump went from vowing withdrawal from Syria to saying they have a “big price to pay”.
A military response in the form of a missile attack was inevitable, and so it took place on April 13, when the US and its allies, Britain and France, made “precision missile strikes against the Syrian government”. The six-day delay was really to gain international support for the attack so that it did not appear to be a showdown between Russia and the US.
The most recent events in Syria were really about aligning Trump’s understanding of Syrian policy with that of the state and military establishment. The policy is to stay in Syria beyond IS, preventing its revival and preventing Iranian and Assad forces from regaining territory.
It is unlikely there will be any other military strikes by the US and its allies anytime soon. There are two possible wild cards though – Trump’s unpredictability and a possible Russian retaliation.
Elements within the US administration in favour of continued US involvement in Syria will have to keep Trump calm – give him reasons why he should continue committing to Syria, while preventing a direct Russian-US confrontation. Building a coalition with France and Britain prior to the missile retaliation served this purpose. It gave Russia the impression that the matter was a concern with the international community, rather than just the US.
Trump’s exaggerating nature and bombastic language in his tweets run the risk of escalating the situation. But they also help contain Russia, which is always unsure what Trump may say and do next.
A Russian response beyond condemnation is unlikely. Putin recently won a landslide victory in the March presidential elections. He is in no hurry to thump his chest into an all-out brawl with the US due to internal politics.
Furthermore, Russia is already in a diplomatic crisis over the assassination attempt of a former spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in London.
The US, Britain and more than a dozen European countries expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation. Putin is already quite vulnerable in the international scene. He will not enter a fight he is not certain to win.
While the US and its allies may feel morally justified in attacking the Assad government targets, any such intervention is unlikely to help the people of Syria. They will continue to be collateral damage caught in the crossfire of geo-politics.
Once again, unfortunate civilians are trapped in the “hell on earth” that the Syrian civil war has become. This time it is the turn of the 400,000 residents of Eastern Ghouta, ten kilometres east of the capital Damascus. Latest reports put civilian casualties at 520 and thousands wounded under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces supported by Russian air strikes.
It seems conditions in Syria are getting worse, and there is no end to the conflict.
The end to any violent conflict comes when either the warring sides realise the devastation they cause and make peace; outside intervention sways the warring parties to end the conflict; or there are clear winners delivering a crushing defeat to their enemies.
None of the warring factions seem to care about the devastation of the seven-year civil war. Almost the entire country is rubble – more than 400,000 people have died, there are 5 million Syrian refugees and more than 6 million displaced. Unfortunately, the peace option seems highly unlikely.
There had been international intervention through peace initiatives since 2013, when the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, lamented that Syria “heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos”. It was a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta that prompted the United Nations to pass a resolution in 2013 demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles and giving impetus to peace talks in Geneva. All efforts to make progress on these talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to meet even as late as 2017, painfully expediting Kerry’s apocalyptic prediction.
The Geneva talks were paralleled by a Russian-led peace initiative in Kazakhstan and later in Sochi. These talks could not have been expected to succeed, given that Russia’s unconditional and active support of the Assad regime hampered any attempt at brokering a peace deal.
Apart from the vested interests and insincerity, the biggest stumbling block has been disagreement over who to include in the peace process. The US does not want Assad or Iran involved; Turkey does not want the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit (YPG); and Russia does not want any of the jihadist rebel groups.
The sheer number of rebel groups is another issue. In the relatively small area of Eastern Ghouta alone, there are three rebel groups, which often bicker with one another.
Since the conflict began in 2011, nearly 200 separate rebel groups have sporadically emerged. Although most of these later merged into larger entities, there are still too many groups. Their inclusion in any peace process has been problematic, because it is unclear who actually represents the Syrian opposition, not to mention the groups’ refusal to sit at the same table.
Then there is the thorny issue of ideological and religious differences. Shiite Syrians and a segment of secular Sunni Muslims support the Assad regime, whereas the largest chunk of the rebel groups are Salafi jihadists. The exceptions are the Kurdish YPG and the largely weakened Free Syrian Army.
All along, Assad’s regime has been claiming it is fighting IS, Al-Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups to keep Syria a modern secular state. Putin is pushing Assad to wipe out these groups, spurred by the deep fear they could mobilise radical Muslim groups within Russia’s borders.
The US and Europe are in the cognitive dissonance of wanting neither Assad nor jihadist groups to gain control in Syria. They don’t want Assad, but they like his argument of protecting a modern secular Syria. The unspoken preference is for Assad over any Jihadi rebel group.
So, the lack of an effective peace intervention and the impossibility of parties sitting down to negotiate leaves only the option of fighting it out until clear victors emerge.
This leaves the Assad regime with a free run to assert itself as the only feasible and legitimate government in Syria, a possibility that may indeed eventuate.
This is the strategic line the Assad regime has drawn thick on the ground. It explains why Assad forces have ignored the UN’s 30-day ceasefire resolution. Putin’s disregard for the resolution, by reducing it to a farcical five-hour window, shows that neither Assad nor Putin wants the rebels to regroup and gain strength. They want a quick and absolute victory, even if it is a bloodbath.
Just as it is almost certain that the rebels of Eastern Ghouta will fall, it is equally certain Assad forces will next intensify the siege of Idlib, a northeastern city held by the Salafi jihadist rebel group Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This pattern will continue until all rebel groups are wiped out.
It is unlikely there will be any fighting between Assad forces and the Kurdish YPG, as that would mean an open confrontation between Russia and the US. After the US supported the YPG, it successfully ended Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria. The US has made it clear it is there to stay, establishing a 30,000-strong border security force as a deterrent against IS regrouping, but more importantly to stop Assad attacking Kurdish regions once he clears the ground of rebel groups in his territory.
The wild card in Syria is Turkey’s unpredictable president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He aims to establish Turkey in northeastern Syria as a third major player along with Russia and the US, by fighting alongside elements of the Free Syrian Army to capture the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin.
Whether Russia and the US will allow Erdogan to realise his objectives remains to be seen. He may find he is out of his league when things get tough on the ground, forcing him out of Syria.
The Syrian conflict will end only if the Russian-supported Assad regime wipes out all Salafi jihadist rebel groups and regains control of western Syria and its most important cities. This may be before the end of 2018. In the meantime, the international community should be prepared to lament more civilian casualties.
This is an edited extract of Kim Beazley and L. Gordon Flake’s essay in Australian Foreign Affairs 2, Trump in Asia: The New World Disorder.
One of the coldest northern winters for many years proved a piece of good fortune for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but it may be the last happy moment on the Korean Peninsula for a long time. A war there is a distinct possibility. Some form of military action to disrupt North Korean nuclear weapon developments is even more likely.
Diplomacy may have run its course. We are at the most dangerous moment since the Korean War armistice in 1953. A war today could have unimaginable consequences: a catastrophic death toll, missile strikes beyond the peninsula, the first nuclear bombs to be used in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The risk has long been real – and in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is alarmingly high. Events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula and in Washington are pointing in a direction that is difficult, but essential, to contemplate.
A fear of mass civilian casualties and the perception that North Korea has a low bar on pre-emption have haunted US administrations. At least ten major North Korean atrocities and provocations since 1967 have been essentially passed over. The response has been sporadic attempts at diplomacy, backed by ever-tightening sanctions.
The Obama administration, faced with a paucity of good options and a hope that at some point the North Koreans would bend, articulated the Allied tactic as “strategic patience”. The Trump administration has said those days are over.
What has changed to bring us to this point? The first shift is the emergence of Kim Jong-un as supreme leader following his father’s death in 2011. Clearly the most insecure of the dynastic line, Kim’s regime has been marked by regular and brutal purges of his retinue and deepening oppression of his people.
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are entwined with Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. Recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is non-negotiable. Last year there were 23 tests of missile capability, culminating in the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At that point, Kim declared his program “complete”.
Kim’s 2018 New Year statement attracted attention for its outreach to South Korea, an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally. This produced a flurry of diplomacy to include the North in the Winter Olympics.
For some, this raised hopes. But most observers had the sense that we had been here before, and none should be fooled. More significant was Kim’s indication that North Korea will focus on “mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment”.
The second major change in the Korean situation is the election of US President Donald Trump. Trump’s approach to national security has deviated more from his campaign promises than any other set of policies.
He has dismissed allies, including South Korea, even suggesting that nation might want to provide its own nuclear umbrella. He sensed his voter base was tired of American commitments and wars, yet now finds himself on the verge of a war that would dwarf any in recent times.
Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. His interventions, by tweet or otherwise, provoke instant mockery among the informed community. But he is the man in charge, and so his views bear close analysis. They reveal his method of processing the information and intelligence he is receiving. In response to a New Year nuclear boast from Kim, Trump tweeted:
Most commentary mocked this schoolyard exchange, but it was significant. Trump is seriously contemplating a war to disarm North Korea of its weapons.
It would be folly to assume that Trump’s views are not widely held within his administration. His national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who has described North Korea as “the greatest immediate threat to the United States”, is a leading proponent of military action.
This has posed some unique challenges for the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, who understands the scale of a likely conflagration. Mattis has repeatedly warned that a conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic”, while also providing assurances of the ultimate outcome – total US victory and the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear program – so as to maintain deterrence.
Mattis works in tandem with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to achieve a diplomatic solution through a tighter sanctions regime. But Mattis matters to Trump; Tillerson doesn’t. Trump was angry about Tillerson’s suggestion that the US was prepared to begin talks with North Korea without preconditions.
Trump is more on song with his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who stated in January:
We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a band-aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.
Trump’s principal source of advice is the Pentagon, which for years has worked on military options to pre-empt North Korea. The Pentagon’s primary duty is to work out how things can be done, a different task from saying whether they should be. Those who carry the diplomatic argument are sidelined.
This leaves Mattis in the weighty position of having to find both a solution and the enabling argument.
Mattis says the US has some potential military options that would not result in the devastation of Seoul, though he has not provided any details. How would it be done?
An apparent “preferred option” is the use of joint CIA and special forces teams – like those used in Afghanistan in 2001 – to seize the nuclear sites.
However, a covert operation of this kind would probably not be a standalone activity – extensive use of bombers and cruise missiles is likely. The possibility of a broader war through an accident or misinterpretation is substantial.
What would be the North Korean reaction to a limited punitive event? If Kim is as “rational” as is commonly claimed, a cruise missile strike to pre-empt a test would hardly trigger a massive response. Most likely, it would be a hit at a soft South Korean target or military base, or a cyberattack.
But neither a limited operation nor a wholesale assault on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could be attempted without having in place the mechanisms for an all-out war. Defending Seoul would require the rapid degrading of the mortar, rocket, missile and artillery capabilities ranged against it.
Given the erosion of North Korea’s conventional capabilities, that might be doable. The problem would lie in what Kim might do in a situation where his regime’s survival was in question. Has he secreted nuclear weapons that could unleash devastation on South Korea and Japan? Half-a-dozen weapons would be economy-destroying; a dozen would be civilisation-destroying.
This brings us back to the question of why Trump would try. For him, the game is simple: North Korea shall not have an ICBM.
For the experts and advisers advocating a pre-emptive strike, it goes to the nature of Kim’s regime. North Korea is a nuclear power like no other, and its intentions are an open question. Does North Korea desire a nuclear capability simply for deterrence and regime survival, or does it have a more aggressive ambition to use that capability to try to reunify the peninsula?
It is difficult to imagine that a pre-emptive US strike can do anything other than risk the devastation of South Korea and Japan, with dreadful human and environmental consequences. Small wonder former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said, before leaving the White House: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”
There is a closing, not closed, window for diplomacy. Any attack would need to be preceded by a comprehensive diplomatic strategy involving China. The US might want to test the waters with China and North Korea on solutions involving a major stand-down rather than entire elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability.
We probably have not yet seen the full weight China is capable of bringing to bear on North Korea. It would have to be a great deal to bring Kim to heel, and it is difficult to envisage such an outcome that would not undermine his sense of his regime’s legitimacy.
It is not yet midnight, but as the crisis deepens, the diplomatic and military options get more and more complex. In averting catastrophe, having a bigger nuclear button will not guarantee success. That is obvious to most informed observers.
But is it obvious to Trump? The answer is unknowable. What is certain is that his own sense of legitimacy is bound up in North Korea having no ICBMs. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts the prospect of war at 50/50.
The prediction is chilling. This is going to be a hard year.
That judgment remains valid, but last week a sliver of light appeared. Motivated at least in part by concern over the march toward confrontation we describe, both during and after the Olympics South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to buy time for diplomacy.
High-level negotiators from the South, following meetings with the North, reported a possibility their counterparts might be prepared to put their nuclear capability on the table in return for security guarantees.
Some analysts suggest the latter means the removal of US forces and guarantees to the South they might think about it, essentially a delaying tactic. Moon wants to test this at a meeting with his counterpart. Trump himself said this might be a start. Certainly in terms of management of allied relationships, the US would want to see what it means, though public statements by the North suggests it is pressing on with the nuclear plan.
Past experience would indicate this is nothing more than an effort at confusion. Still, we don’t know how the other side of the hill interprets Trump’s obvious preparedness for war. The US will certainly need to do some thinking about a matter that has attracted only sporadic attention to date – what does a diplomatic end game look like?
One senses the US clock is still ticking to midnight, and this is not an endless process without credible developments. A hard year ahead remains the case.