Consider: Would the events below and ponder whether they would be taking place if the Obama administration were not so obviously just running out the clock? It’s a safe bet that Bashar al-Assad will be in power longer than Barack Obama.
Last week the UN’s “Joint Investigative Mechanism” reported its conclusion that the government of Syria (the Syrian Air Force) had used chlorine as a weapon in two instances. It also concluded that ISIS had used mustard agent on one occasion. It is still reviewing evidence on some other events before making its final report next month.
This is remarkable from a process standpoint. The UN had mandated an earlier investigation to determine if chemical attacks had taken place in Syria. A detailed analysis by the OPCW and UN concluded that chemical use had occurred. But they were not mandated to say who was responsible. The Security Council voted a resolution last year that mandated the new group (the Joint Investigative Mechanism), to identify if possible, those responsible. They were given a year. Notably, Russia went along with this, presumably aware that in all likelihood the Syrian government would not come out innocent. And they didn’t.
Now there is debate over what to do about it. Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position than a year ago and Russia is fighting by his side. Chlorine as a weapon is not very useful. So it’s a mystery why they don’t put the screws to Bashar to stop.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has something at stake himself since he was a key architect of the diplomatic deal that got Syria to get handover its extensive chemical weapons infrastructure. This was seen as a success in an otherwise dismal theatre. Now Bashar al-Assad blows some of his “goodwill” by using a toxic industrial chemical as a weapon. Go figure.
The UN and human rights advocates are strident that consequences must be exacted for Syria’s violating the Chemical Weapons Convention it signed in 2013. Otherwise others will feel less constrained. Bad precedent.
All that’s true, but in the scheme of things, there are much bigger problems in the Syria/Iraq/ISIS/Iran/Russia/US mess. The US looks a bit lame now because Russia is the dominant actor there and the UN is not going to do anything about Syria that Moscow objects to.
Some will paint the Obama Administration as having failed in its diplomatic strategy of disarming Syria of CW weapons. That’s overstated since the large inventories of weapons and agents Syria possessed (mustard and nerve agents—far more lethal than chlorine) have been removed. This is still a major accomplishment if you consider the risk that this stuff could have fallen into hands of ISIS.
However, the overarching Syria policy has not succeeded in any other objective. Bashar al-Assad is stronger now and the coordination between Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran is a big new reality—just as the US has reduced its focus and attention to a narrow objective—killing ISIS. What remains governing the region in the aftermath, well the US will have little impact—at least as this administration runs out the clock. One thing is certain. Bashar al Assad will be in power longer than Barack Obama.
Which brings me to the ignored part of the UN report. They concluded that ISIS had conducted attacks using mustard agent. Mustard agent is a real chemical agent, not a toxic industrial chemical used as a weapon (i.e. chlorine). ISIS has real expertise and intent. And this underlines the risk of the assault on ISIS in Mosul.
Mosul was the heart of ISIS chemical expertise and facilities. Some apparently have been hit by US strikes, but among the very big uncertainties of “doing Mosul” soon, is the potential of widespread dissemination of chemical agents by ISIS—in Mosul and elsewhere.