The Devil Is in the Details: Where We Are With Syria

One week ago the world stood perched, waiting to know whether the United States would carry out limited air strikes on the Assad regime to enforce the international ban on chemical weapons. While Assad denied that his regime used such weapons, many, myself included, thought little of his repeated denials. Thirty months into a conflict, where he has brutalized his own people by employing cluster munitions (also a war crime), inciting violence through the Shabiha (the civilian killing squads), and making no distinctions between civilians -- particularly infants and children -- has left Assad with little credit. This past weekend Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov came to a "deal" to avert said strikes. Assad would sign the chemical weapons ban, hand over a list (by this Saturday) of all the chemical weapons stockpiles, and within seven to eight months the international community would take possession of these deplorable munitions and destroy them.

This all sounds well and good. In fact, many believe this is the way out of a disaster waiting to happen. However, the sad fact is that the devil is in the details and I fear that nothing -- nothing -- will actually happen, and the Syrian people will continue to suffer and be brutalized. But to understand why I hold such a pessimistic view we should return to the history of this conflict. The initial protests began on March 18, 2011 during the Arab Spring. Within days of the first protests, security forces began killing protesters. At first Assad's police forces' pace was slow, kill five protesters here, six there, but the community's response to the killing was not to retreat in fear but to motivate more people to protest. Within weeks Assad dismissed a majority of his cabinet, claiming that the political reforms sought after were soon to come, and thus the violence and protests should end. Nothing changed, and Assad began playing a very shrewd game: he prevaricated between promising reform and shooting civilians. Within one month the death toll rose to 500.

Skip ahead eight months. Now we see defections from the Syrian security forces and the Arab League's first attempt at a peace plan is publicized and quickly shown to be a joke. The Arab League thus suspends Assad's membership, and in response he promises more concessions, only to back track and renege. Ultimately the Arab League monitors leave Syria due to "worsening conditions." Fast-forward another four months. The United Nations Secretary General appoints a "special envoy" to negotiate a peace. This special envoy is Kofi Annan. Former Secretary General Annan comes up with a Six-Point Peace Plan, only to see it dashed to the rocks by Assad's cat and mouse game and his paced escalations in violence. Several months later, Annan resigns citing a "lack of follow through" by the international community and "finger pointing" in the United Nations Security Council (due to the use of the veto by Russia and China in the Security Council on a resolution authorizing the use of force to stop Assad). At the time of the second special envoy's appointment, Lakhdar Brahimi, the death toll nears 60,000. Brahimi puts forth several more peace plans; only to see those negotiated ceasefires end within hours or days.

After the last of these peace plans (almost one year ago) the international community became rather silent -- until the chemical weapons attack on August 21, 2013. Almost one year prior (in July of 2012) the Obama administration uttered its now infamous "red line," claiming that if Assad used these weapons against his people the United States would be forced to act. Now here we sit in September of 2013. Assad has clearly crossed the red line, as the recently released United Nations report suggests. Sarin gas was used against a civilian center; 1,400 people were brutally murdered, and amongst them many, too many, children. Obama, true to his word, threatened the use of force to punish Assad and deter any future use of chemical weapons. However, Lavrov's deft political maneuvers have thwarted much of the momentum (and what little support) there was for any strikes against Assad.

So where are we now? We are exactly where we were in April of 2011. That is to say, Assad's killing machine continues, Russia's backing of the regime continues, and any political settlement is going to be bogged down in diplomatic squabbles. Currently the U.S., Britain and France want to push forward a(nother) Security Council resolution to enforce the tentative agreement reached between Kerry and Lavrov this past weekend. However, President Putin has, from day one, stated that the only way Russia will agree to a diplomatic settlement is if the use of force is taken off the table. The U.S., however, maintains that it is only the use of force that even brought Russia (and Syria) to the negotiating table. Thus we have come full circle. Assad has yet again made concessions that cost him nothing, and now the only difference is he is relying on his powerful ally to do the dancing for him. Russia can require certain conditions, and if those are not met, then diplomacy fails (yet again). Assad has lost nothing. He maintains his chemical weapons stockpiles, his monopoly on munitions, planes, tanks and helicopters and the world stands by to watch the slaughter continue. Assad is not a stupid man. Indeed, he seems to have played this round expertly. He is free to commit atrocities, destabilize the region, and then blame the outcome on the lack of flexibility or intransigence of the West. Well done Mr. Assad, well done. I only hope that your people can muster the strength to do what we cannot: oust you and hold you to account for the countless atrocities that you have committed against defenseless and innocent people.