23 October 2013
Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Everybody Wins (Except the Syrians)
By Gwynne Dyer
“That prize should have been given to me,” joked Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 11 October. The guests gathered in his palace in Damascus presumably laughed, out of courtesy to their host, but they all knew that giving up Syria’s chemical weapons hadn’t been Assad’s idea at all.
Al-Akhbar, the Beirut newspaper that reported Assad’s remarks, has close links with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia that is supported by Syria and Iran, and it accepted Assad’s regret about the new turn of events at face value. “There is no doubt that the loss of chemical weapons has resulted in a loss of morale and a political loss for Syria,” Assad said.
“Since 2003, Syria has demanded that the countries in the region dismantle their weapons of mass destruction, and the chemical weapons were meant to be a bargaining chip in Syria’s hands in exchange for Israel dismantling its nuclear arsenal,” the Syrian president continued. “Today the price (of the bargaining chip) has changed, and we have agreed to give up our chemical weapons to remove the threat of the US attacking us.”
He’s really doing it, too. Sixty out of a planned hundred OPCW inspectors are already in Syria, and they have made no complaints about a lack of cooperation by Damascus. By the end of this month they will have completed their initial verification visits and confirmed that Syria’s account of its chemical weapons and facilities is accurate and conceals nothing.
They will also have disabled the country’s ability to produce and mix poison gases and load them into actual weapons by then. The work is “cheap, quick and low-tech,” in the words of OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan. The inspectors are just smashing the control panels on the machines that produce and mix the gases, and destroying the munitions that would actually deliver the end product with sledgehammers, grinders and bulldozers.
Significantly, the inspectors have so far found no bombs, shells or missiles that are actually filled with poison gas, which suggests that Syria’s chemical weapons were in a very low state of readiness. It also greatly eases the next phase of the OPCW’s task, the destruction of the actual chemicals, since it is a tricky and dangerous business to extract the liquefied poison gas from a projectile that also contains the explosives to disperse it when it lands.
Syria has an estimated 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic chemicals: around 300 tonnes of sulfur mustard, a blistering agent, and about 700 tonnes of the nerve agents sarin and VX. But if none of it is “weaponised” (loaded into projectiles), and much of the nerve agent is in “precursor” form, as separate, less toxic components, then OPCW’s goal of finishing the job by mid-2014 seems feasible. Even if it has to be done in the midst of a civil war.
It’s quite clear that Assad did not plan all this. His forces (or somebody else’s) used poison gas in Damascus, though the attack was pointless in military terms. President Barack Obama was trapped by his previous loose talk about an American “red line” into threatening to bomb Syria. And the Russians got Obama off the hook (and saved Assad from a severe pounding) by “persuading” the Syrian leader to renounce his chemical weapons.
But what has Assad really lost? “The chemical weapons, which have lost their deterrent value over the past few years, were meant to be used only after Israel used its nuclear weapons,” he says, but it was never a very credible deterrent. Israel’s unstoppable nuclear weapons could annihilate Syria, whereas the very effective Israeli civil defence organisation would have made mass casualties unlikely even in a worst-case Syrian gas attack.
In any case, Syria’s chemical weapons have indeed now lost whatever deterrent value they ever had, for Israel has acquired good anti-missile defences that would shoot down most incoming Syrian missiles. Syria actually stopped producing new chemical weapons in 1997, Assad said, because they had lost their military usefulness.
After that, they were only a low-value “bargaining chip” to be put on the table in the improbable event of region-wide negotiations on eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. (Poison gas is not remotely comparable to nuclear weapons in its destructiveness, but it is technically “WMD”.) But Assad is a very lucky man. He discovered belatedly that his bargaining chip could be traded for something else: immunity from American attack.
So everybody wins. Obama escapes from the new Middle Eastern war that he dreaded. Moscow gets huge diplomatic credit for coming up with the formula that averted that war, and saves its Syrian client as well. Assad regains a measure of respectability by nobly relinquishing his useless chemical weapons. And the OPCW gets the Nobel Peace Prize.
The only losers are the Syrian people on both sides of a dreadful civil war, which looks set to drag on indefinitely.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“Al-Akhbar…said”; and “They…bulldozers”)
9 October 2013
Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…
By Gwynne Dyer
The media spotlight on the Arab world shifts focus almost every month: counter-revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria, an American raid in Libya… It rarely stays on Iraq for long, because the violence there has been going on so long that it has become part of the scenery. But just be patient a little longer.
Five months ago, a British fraudster called James McCormick was jailed for ten years for selling novelty hand-held golf-ball detectors (cost $20) to the Iraqi government as bomb detectors (cost $40,000). Yet the Iraqi security services are still using the preposterous devices, which don’t even have a power source. This tells you all you need to know about the situation in the country
It’s not because the Iraqis are unaware of the problem. McCormick allegedly received $75 million from the Iraqi government for the useless toys, and at least a third of that amount would have gone as kickbacks to the government officials who signed off on the deal. That much lolly was bound to attract the jealousy of rival government officials, and so there has indeed been an Iraqi investigation into the deal.
Three local culprits, including Major-General Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the Defence Ministry’s directorate of combat explosives, even went to jail over the crime. (They were probably insufficiently generous in sharing their good fortune with other high office-holders.) But as late as last May Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was still insisting that the “ADE-651” golf-ball detectors were effective – and they are still in widespread use today.
This is beyond bizarre, because Iraq is currently losing about a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. True, five times as many people are being killed each month in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, but civil wars always kill many more people than mere terrorism.
The fear now is that Iraq is drifting towards a sectarian civil war as well. Maliki’s government, which is dominated by politicians from the Shia majority of the Arab population, effectively controls only about half the country. The Kurds, who would really rather be independent, control the north, and have little interest in inter-Arab disputes. And the Sunni Arabs deeply resent being under Shia rule.
There has been a revolution in Iraq in the past decade, although it was not the democratic one that the American invaders thought they were bringing. In overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they also ended many centuries of domination by the Sunni Arab minority. Now it’s Shia Arabs who rule the roost, and the Sunnis are largely frozen out of the government, the army, and the civil service.
That may be even more important in alienating the Sunni community from the post-American settlement than the constant arrests and torture of Sunnis suspected of anti-government activity. Unemployment in Iraq is 30 percent, and half the jobs that do exist are in the gift of the government. They almost all go to Shias, and the Sunnis have fallen on very hard times.
Mass Sunni protests began almost a year ago, and until last April they were almost entirely non-violent. Sunni terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda-related jihadist organisations – another by-product of the American occupation – were killing about 300 Shias a month, but they had little support in the broader Sunni community.
Then in April the Iraqi (i.e. Shia) army raided a peaceful protest camp in Hawijah, killing about 50 Sunnis, and suddenly the violent minority of Sunni jihadists came to be seen as defenders of Sunni rights. In May the death toll from terrorism leaped to 700. By June it was almost a thousand, and by now some of them were Sunnis killed by Shia counter-terrorists. July, August and September have each brought about a thousand more victims.
This is heading back towards a civil war on the scale of what happened in Iraq in 2006-2007, under the American occupation, when some 3,000 people were being killed each month, and the government is doing nothing effective to stop it. But then, the government does nothing effective in any domain.
The Iraq government gets $100 billion a year in oil revenue, but nothing gets built or maintained or repaired. Most people live in poverty, while the bulk of the oil income goes on salaries for government employees, a large majority of whom either don’t show up for work at all, or fail to do any useful work when they get there. The rest of the money is simply stolen by the government’s own senior officials.
The fake bomb detectors are part of that vast haemorrhage of cash, and one possible reason that they have not been replaced yet is that some people will obviously make a lot of money out of the contract for whatever replaces them. Until the question of which people has been decided, nothing will be done.
The soldiers and police using them in the streets don’t mind. If they should find a bomb in a car, the suicide bomber driving it will almost detonate the explosives and kill them. So a bomb detector that doesn’t detect bombs is just fine with them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“There has…hard times”)
30 September 2013
Iran: In from the Cold?
By Gwynne Dyer
When Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, came home from the United Nations General Assembly meeting last Friday, demonstrators at Tehran airport threw eggs, shoes and stones. They had heard about his 15-minute phone conversation with US President Barack Obama, and they were not pleased.
But there were many more Rouhani supporters at the airport, who clearly hoped that he will make a deal with the United States on Iran’s nuclear programme and end the sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy. “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution,” Rouhani’s office tweeted after the famous phone call to Obama, and most Iranians want to believe him.
Most people elsewhere want to believe him too. We have had ten years of escalating threats by Israel and the US to attack Iran if it doesn’t stop enriching uranium for its civil nuclear power programme, on the grounds that this is merely a cover for a nuclear weapons programme. And everybody understands that this could end up as a big, ugly war.
That’s why Obama took the political risk of becoming the first US president in 34 years to talk to an Iranian leader. When he addressed the General Assembly in New York, he welcomed the “more moderate course” taken by President Rouhani, who took office in August. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great,” Obama said, “but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Then the chief roadblock arrived: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He was flying to New York to “tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the blitz of smiles,” he said – and when he mounted the podium at the General Assembly, he bluntly accused the new Iranian president of being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Nobody, not even the Israeli intelligence services, accuses Iran of working on nuclear weapons right now. The US Central Intelligence Agency flatly says that it is not. The accusation, by Israel, its Western supporters, and some of Iran’s Arab neighbours, is that Tehran is building a (quite legal) uranium enrichment capability IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO MAKE ACTUAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS AT SOME FUTURE TIME.
Iran denies any such intention, of course. “We say explicitly that we will be transparent; we say explicitly that we will not build a bomb,” said Rouhani in New York. “No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons.”
That last was a subtle slap at the hypocrisy of the United States and Israel, which have thousands and hundreds of nuclear weapons respectively, for threatening to attack another country because it is allegedly planning to build them in the future. But Rouhani is not demanding that Israel give up its nuclear weapons and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On the contrary, he implicitly accepts the status quo.
So why doesn’t Netanyahu welcome the possibility that Iran now seems willing to negotiate a deal that would leave it free to make its own enriched nuclear fuel for reactors, but stop it from making highly enriched uranium suitable for weapons? By all means insist that any US-Iranian deal be enforceable and free of loopholes, but why say things like “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake (enriched uranium) and eat it too”?
The ten-year confrontation over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions has served Netanyahu well. It has distracted the world’s attention from the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. It has also given him enormous leverage in Washington: much US policy in the Middle East is driven by the perceived need to keep Israel from launching a unilateral attack on Iran, which would be a catastrophe for American interests in the region.
But if Netanyahu truly believes that Iranian nuclear weapons would be an existential threat to Israel, why would he oppose negotiations that might put an end to that possibility? Exactly what would be lost by giving peace a chance?
What would be lost, if a lasting deal emerged from the negotiations being mooted between Tehran and Washington, is the ability of successive right-wing Israeli governments to extort unconditional American military support for Israel, no matter what it does, precisely because it allegedly faces an existential threat from Iran.
Since the Russian-sponsored deal over Syria’s chemical weapons has similarly sidelined the prospect of an American attack on Syria (which Israel sees as its second most dangerous enemy), the foreign policy that has sustained Netanyahu for almost two decades is collapsing.
Without a plausible military threat to Israel – and where else could it come from, if not Iran or Syria? – his ability to bully successive American administrations into ignoring Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, its clandestine nuclear and chemical weapons, and much else besides, would slowly drain away. So Netanyahu will do everything he can to strangle the newborn possibility of an American-Iranian rapprochement in its cradle.
As the scenes at Tehran airport demonstrate, Rouhani also faces strong opposition at home from those whose political instincts or interests demand a continuation of the Iran-against-the-world confrontation that has already lasted for a generation. Rouhani’s initiative has created a great deal of hope, but its enemies are already working to kill it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 11. (“Iran…quo”; and “But…chance”)
22 September 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
It was already looking likely that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would survive – it has had the upper hand militarily in the Syrian civil war for at least six months now – but the events of the past two weeks have made it virtually certain.
Syria has already complied with the two initial demands of the Russian-American deal concluded over Assad’s head last week. It has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and it has given a list of all Syria’s poison gas facilities and storage depots to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That means that the United States cannot attack it for at least a year.
President Barack Obama’s ability to order such an attack was already in doubt because of opposition in Congress. Now he could not bomb without endangering UN inspectors, who will be all over the regime-controlled parts of Syria by November to take control of the estimated thousand tonnes of chemical weapons. Syria has a year to destroy them all, and until and unless it fails to meet that deadline, bombing is out of the question.
Even if there are delays, the United States will be uniquely ill-placed to use them as the pretext for an attack, as it is far behind schedule itself. In 1997 the US agreed to destroy the 31,000 tonnes of sarin, VX, mustard gas and other lethal gases that it owned within ten years.
That’s thirty times as much as Syria has, but ten years should have been enough.
It wasn’t. In 2007 Washington asked for five more years to get rid of all its poison gas, the maximum extension allowed under the Chemical Weapons Convention. It didn’t meet that deadline either, so last year it announced a new deadline: 2021. Given its own record, the US will find it hard to use Syrian delays as an excuse for resurrecting its bombing threats.
The civil war will probably continue during the coming year, and possibly for a good deal longer. Assad’s troops have been winning back territory in the centre of the country, but they have yet to make much progress in the north, the south or the east. They lack the numbers to finish the job now, but the tide is running in their direction.
Close to a thousand separate rebel units are now operating in Syria, but there is no unified rebel army. The armed groups can be roughly divided into jihadists (many of them foreign) who want to create an Islamic caliphate in Syria, and more moderate groups who originally took up arms hoping to create a democratic Syria freed from the Baath Party’s tyranny.
Most of the less radical groups want an Islamic republic too, but they are repelled by the extremism of the jihadists. They hoped that the West would destroy Assad’s forces and put them in power instead (while keeping the jihadists out), and they are now very angry at the United States for letting them down. But they are also deeply disappointed, for the realists among them can see no other way to win this fight.
Many of these fighters would now be open to a regime offer of a ceasefire, an amnesty, and a gradual transition to a less corrupt and repressive political system, and the Baathist regime is likely to make such an offer soon (whether it means it or not). It would not neutralise the jihadists and restore peace to the country, but it might seduce enough of the other rebels to shift the military balance sharply in Assad’s favour.
Much cruel fighting would remain to defeat the jihadists, but at least the country would emerge intact. Or the war may just go on and on, ending eventually in partition. But at least we have been spared the spectacle of the United States and its sidekicks attacking yet another Muslim country, only to realise in the end (as in the case of the imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) that its excuse for doing so was false.
The pretext this time was going to be Assad’s use of poison gas against his own people. But the timing was weird. (UN inspectors had just arrived in Damascus when nerve gas was fired at the rebel-held eastern suburbs). The target was pointless. (Why civilians, not rebel fighters?) And why would Assad use a weapon that might trigger Western bombing when he was already winning the war without it?
Now the Russians are saying (off the record, so far) that the serial numbers of the rockets that delivered the nerve gas reveal that they did not belong to the Syrian army. They were made in Russia in 1967 and sold to Yemen, Egypt and Libya’ s Colonel Gaddafy – who filled some of them with nerve gas. He had about a thousand tonnes of the stuff.
A lot of Gaddafi’s arsenal went missing after he was overthrown two years ago, sold off by the victorious rebel militias. Some of the nerve gas-filled rockets could easily have ended up in Syria, in rebel hands, and the temptation to use them in order to trigger Western military intervention would have been hard to resist. If that is really the case, then President Obama should be even more grateful to Moscow for saving his bacon.
To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Even if…threats”)