Chemical Deal on Syria is “Kicking the Can Down the Road”

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

With violence in Syria going on unabated, killing civilians right and left and displacing hundreds of thousands every month, the major powers are cheering a diplomatic breakthrough they secured with Russia, the main backer of the Syrian regime, to destroy the country’s sizeable chemical arms stockpile.

The Syrian opposition and its allies gave the deal a cold shoulder, arguing that it doesn’t address the need to end the violence in the country. The deal also largely lifted the possibility of US-led strikes on Syria.

To talk about these issues, Today’s Zaman spoke with Salman Shaikh. After working for nearly 10 years with the UN, Shaikh has become the director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. His research primarily focuses on international relations in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Gulf countries and the Levant. He is especially known with his work on Syria since the Syrian crisis began.

According to Shaikh, the arms deal is very telling regarding the credible threat of the use of force and how it can be effective, but he recommends a strategy that combines the military, diplomatic, political and even the humanitarian sides of the issue.

He praised Turkey’s role in backing the Syrian opposition and encouraged Ankara to continue supporting the Supreme Military Council’s leader, Salim Idris, helping his efforts and closing all the other channels.

Shaikh is also hopeful about the Syrian crisis, despite many failed diplomatic attempts and the opposition’s failure to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al- Assad. “It’s never too late,” he says. “Even as Assad tries to tear apart the social fabric of Syrian society, Syrians are still trying to put it back together.”

What do you think about the chemical weapons deal agreed to on Saturday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov?

On the face of it, it is an achievement. Only a week ago, nobody would have expected this. It is possible that Assad will resort to delaying tactics and the situation will get complicated again. In a way, this deal could be another case of “kicking the can down the road” and we might have to deal with the Syrian crisis again six months later. The deal also is very telling about the credible use of force threat and how it can be effective. Though my expectation is that this deal will intensify the conflict on the ground, just as we witnessed after the first Geneva meeting.

Another important aspect of the deal is that it relies on Assad and his remaining in power. In a way it’s a rehabilitation of the Assad regime and the US is accepting doing business with Assad.


How will this deal affect the UN report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapon attack east of Damascus?

This deal in a way pre-empts the report. The report was going to point the finger at Assad as the actor behind the attack and could have galvanized more forceful action against him. Now, we are already accepting a way forward with his regime with this deal. The deal in a way deflates any effort to really build a coalition against the Assad regime following the report.

What would the ideal diplomatic solution be for the Syrian crisis?

We need a strategy that involves the military, diplomatic, political, and even the humanitarian side. And we need tactics that first and foremost would express clear goals to pressure and coerce the Assad regime and building a coalition for enforcement if necessary. Actually, this whole chemical weapons issue has shown that to us in a certain way, even if we stumbled upon it. To a point, US President Barack Obama expressed a clear goal, then he put a credible threat of force on the table and tried to build the international coalition around it and we started to see something. The president didn’t succeed in all of those, but nevertheless I think it was a very important lesson about how to deal with the Syrian crisis moving forward. But President Obama still is very confused when it comes to Syria.

Why is he confused?

He doesn’t want to own Syria. He is trying to manage the effects of it when it comes to the US’ own core national interests and its key allies. But you have to know that you can’t manage the Syrian situation, you have to help resolve it.

Some argue that Obama doesn’t trust his advisers.

Many have observed that this administration doesn’t have foreign policy thinkers with the deep experience that other administrations had. If you look around, there is some truth to that thought. But, this is very much about President Obama, in terms of how he makes decisions; it is about his world view, which is greatly shaped by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and working through international norms. Also, the president is deeply driven by domestic politics. But he has a big problem, in that Syria comes at a very inconvenient time for him. The challenges posed [by Syria] now impact national interests, whether it is to do with regional allies, radicalization in the region, chemical weapons falling to the wrong hands, or the security of Israel. All of these things matter to the US now as priorities.

Many have argued from the beginning that there is no core national interest in Syria for the US and that it should not get involved. Yeah, sure. There have been those patting themselves on the back and somehow they thought they were managing to stay out of it. But again, for the reasons I mentioned, time has shown that these national security interests have been impacted by events in Syria. People like us pretty much recognized these from the outset. Why? Because the Syrians were warning us. I remember two-and-a-half years ago, Syrian tribal leaders were telling me, ‘If you don’t help us try to get rid of Assad, the extremists will come back.’ Who can guarantee that the chemical weapons will not fall into the wrong hands now? All of Syria’s borders are compromised. So, we are not speculating, the experiences of the past 30 months give us very clear evidence. And this also gives added credibility to our point that if you allow it to continue for another 30 months, it will get worse. And I really do believe, looking ahead, that this Syrian issue has the ability to take this presidency to a complete train wreck.


What would you say was the biggest opportunity that the US missed regarding Syria?

One obvious tactical one is that the president was going against the advice of his whole national security team (advice to arm the Syrian opposition) at about this time last year. If they had tried to train them, 20,000 or 30,000 members of the Syrian opposition, helped them create a central command structure, particularly from the south of Syria, the momentum of the Syrian opposition would have been very different. And our fears about who these opposition groups are would have been very different.

What is your expectation from the latest efforts at the UN?

I think that the Americans and Russians both would like to see the two Geneva processes come together and form a larger, comprehensive strategy. I think that this chemical offer is good and consists of an important set of meetings. I think we will know quickly whether everyone is working seriously towards what is agreed, that being that Assad voluntarily giving up the chemical weapons. By the way, in any inspection regime, the inspectors should not go hunting around for the weapons; Assad must voluntarily give them up.

In case of a military strike, some have argued that it could spark WW III.

A lot of that is posturing. It’s about all of those big states finding a certain strong position and the lead up to that. I think that privately, even the Iranians were quietly very worried about Assad. Assad has always said, ‘Either me or chaos.’ So he doesn’t want to go quietly. In case of a military strike, he wants to up the ante even further. That of course, could have spiraling consequences in neighboring states such as Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. They could all face backlash. Though I don’t see it happening in such an automatic way as Assad and the Russians wanted us to believe.

Justice and Development Party (AK Party) officials have been strongly criticized for their Syrian policy. What would you advise them?

I would encourage them to continue supporting the Supreme Military Council’s leader, Salim Idriss, help his efforts and close all other channels. There was a time that Turkey turned a blind eye to all sorts of other support to other groups in Syria. Turkey can play a role, ensuring that there is one channel of support to the military opposition and in my view that would be the Idriss channel.

I think Turkey has taken some steps in that direction in last few months, particularly on the advice of the Americans.

I believe Turkey has given very commendable support to the political opposition and that Turkey and regional states have a very important role in shaping what comes next in Syria. In this respect, I believe Turkey, along with other key states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have a very important role in fostering and encouraging intra-Syrian dialogue. I think that the opposition hasn’t presented itself as a credible alternative. Simply, the most influential figures in the Alawite, Christian and Druze communities have not joined. It is a challenge; we should get them to engage in this sort of discussion for the future of Syria.

Who should coordinate the dialogue efforts among the Syrians?

I think the UN should have done it. United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi focused on and spent his energy on the big diplomatic and strategic game between the Russians and the Americans. I think, at the end of the day, it has to be a Syrian-led process. For whatever reason, the political opposition looks too Sunni to many other Syrians and is backed by other Sunni states. It’s not capitalizing on the diversity of Syrians. I think one of the biggest failures of the opposition is that it has not managed to wrestle with the narrative of Syria as a secular state, away from Assad. Assad still talks about being the guardian of the minorities and the secular state. Whereas, in reality he is lying and he is the principal actor in the sectarian strife there. What you need is to find an effective power-sharing formula in which the majority of Syrians be included, keeping the Syrian state together. That kind of vision is what has been missing.


Do you think it’s too late for Syria?

No. It’s never too late. Even as Assad tries to tear apart the social fabric of Syrian society, Syrians are still trying to put it back together. National reconciliation efforts have to start today, in my view. Why wait? My best hope is that the regional states and the West will support and create a protected space for this kind of activity to take place. I warned last summer that Syria was crumbling when I wrote “Losing Syria.” What I have been impressed by is how Syrians still think “Syria first,” despite all the bloodletting and sectarian overtones. It’s not going to be the same Syria that was run by a small minority again. There is going to be a big change. But that change will have to come through negotiations for a Syria that is at peace with and doesn’t threaten its neighbors. I think it’s also in the key regional neighbors’ interests to support this.

How much do you think the radicals dominate on the ground?

I think it’s irresponsible to say that these people are incapable of creating problems. But at the same time, we won’t know their exact strength until we really start supporting Syrian communities, both on the military side as well as with rebuilding efforts.

I always thought that extremism and Syrians are like oil and water; they don’t mix. Now, the terrible experiences of this conflict and the slaughter inflicted by the Assad regime have made people more and more desperate. And a more permissive climate for extremism has been created. However, look what’s taking place on the ground today, people are running away from extremism. This should be an important indicator for us; given the right support that these people obviously need, these communities will turn and in fact, fight against the extremists. But without that support, you will see continuing radicalization of the opposition.

How likely do you think it will be if the regime falls that the Syrian state will be taken over by radicals?

You know what I fear more than that? Total chaos and continued conflict. That’s the biggest enemy we have now. In the case of continued chaos, we will have pockets and maybe larger areas, where radicals will be the first to take control. We already see that. We have radicals in places like Hasakah, Der Zour and Raqqa where they control the area, they have their own sources of revenue through oil in conflict with the regime and they are the ones who do the relief efforts, by and large. What we have seen over the last six months that increasingly that there is a three-way conflict inside Syria [Syrian moderate fighters, radicals and the regime]. That will continue and worsen where we have a situation in which we don’t give enough support to the Syrian population and help them organize their affairs and give them arms and aid and whatever they need in order to build a minimum national force.


How do Ankara’s policies look from Doha?

Turkey certainly has lots of more problems than it did a couple of years ago. And the main reason for that is certainly the Syrian crisis. The way the Syrian regime handled change within the country it affected all neighboring countries, including Turkey. But of course, the vocal position of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led Turkey to also become part of the story and made it kind of a lightning rod for criticism from inside the Middle East. This is nowhere more clear than in the Egyptian case today. Some wonder if this is the wisest thing for Turkey to do, especially when its success so much depended on its economic progress and its ability to do business with everybody.

Some criticized Ankara for its support for the Syrian armed opposition.

I think the criticism I have of Turkey is that it was too selective in the Syrians it worked with. This also contributed the Syrian opposition being too narrow. Turkey is not alone in that, other states can also be criticized for that. I know there is debate in Turkey that this policy exposed Turkey to all sort of risks. But you know, I think Turkey should be proud for standing on the right side of history. Even though Assad was a friend to Ankara and they tried to use persuasion with him at first, they had the guts to oppose Assad in order to stand by the Syrian people. Now the challenge for Turkey is to support all Syrians and let Syrians decide their own future. That’s a difficult balancing act because there is a great temptation to try to shape the outcome.

Many argue that the AK Party supported revolutions in the region, including in Syria, because of their Muslim Brotherhood roots. Does Ankara look like a version of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East?

Turkey looks more and more like a principal supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. That might not be the actual truth, but its vocal protestations about what has been going on, particularly in Egypt, have attracted a lot of attention. Compared to the quieter reaction from the Qataris, who are originally and principally associated with the Brotherhood.