Syria’s Chemical Weapons Programme Doesn’t Matter

…and we’re back, only two months later than I expected.  I hate winter.

(This is really more a collection of thoughts in some vague order than a coherent argument.  If a coherent argument is made, it is accidental.)

I’ve seen quite a lot of low-level panic recently about the Syrian chemical weapons programme.  Since the foreign ministry announced in July that the would only use chemical weapons against foreign forces, the topic has come up regularly.  The US even sent teams to Jordan to prepare to seize whatever distasteful materials they could find whenever the government collapses.  Now that five months have passed and people are starting to forget, the spectre of Syria’s highly advanced nuclear programme (that unfinished building at al-Kibar which the Israelis bombed in 2007) has risen, or been raised, most recently in the Financial Times.  The article breathlessly describes a scenario in which lumps of pre-processed uranium are lying around the Syrian desert waiting for the Iranians to pick them up.  Unfortunately, that particular part of Syria has been out of government control for about a year – it was one of the first governorates to fall, and the one which fell most completely.  You would think the Syrian government might just have expended a little more energy in keeping hold of its uranium.  But in any case the whole idea is totally bonkers, and not the main point of this blog.  So let us turn back to Syria’s chemical weapons, which do exist.

And you know, it’s really quite remarkable that we can say that they do exist with such certainty.  Since 1979, the Syrian government has hedged and muttered and prevaricated about its chemical weapons programme, just like all countries do when asked about their secret WMDs unless they’re insanely powerful (the US, China, Russia) or have a regional enemy to intimidate (India, Pakistan).  The urge to hide them is precisely what makes it difficult to believe people like Gaddafi when they deny having a warhead or two under the presidential palace.  Of course, everyone knew that the Syrians had a chemical weapons capacity, but there wasn’t much concrete proof, only speculation.

Then suddenly, after 33 years of obfuscation, the Syrian government announces that it has chemical weapons and outlines conditions for their use.  Although this was intended, on the surface, as a deterrent against the presence of international forces in Syria, one has to hope that the Syrian government is not so hopeless that it thinks that would genuinely deter an intervention.  If anything, given the hysteria the announcement at least temporarily provoked, it increased the chances of eventual international involvement.  The West can forgive shocking amounts of bloodshed, especially from allies, but balks at the prospect of WMDs (see also: Saddam Hussein).  The Ba’th Party surely knows this, and understands that the announcement will not serve its avowed purpose.

So why make it in the first place? There is a second, less immediate reason, and exploring it will require drawing out a hypothetical but plausible scenario for the end stages of the civil war.

HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO: Let us suppose that the rebels (eventually) take Damascus.  Given their steady but glacial advance over the country there is no reason to suppose that this would happen too rapidly for the Alawites to leave and go to the north, the Alawite heartland in the mountains behind Lattakia.  This is already happening to some extent.  It would be relatively simple for the government to consolidate its chemical weapons stores into a few places, withdraw them as they lose control over the capital, then take them to the north when they flee.

The opposition have been consistently terrible at unifying.  This is partly because of the lack of communication between the Coalition in exile and the people who are actually doing the fighting – you can promise any kind of partnership you like in exile but it won’t happen on the ground.  Even the Free Syrian Army, which has always been gently theoretical, no longer holds a monopoly over the exercise of military power.  It is also because Syria moved from French protectorate (1920-46) to brief democratic rule (1946-49) to a series of military dictatorships (1949-1958) to unification with Egypt under Nasser (1958-1961) to a transitional government (1961-1963) to a series of Ba’thist coups (1963-1970) to the Asads.  There has never been a chance to sit down and work out the details of what Syrian identity means.  Since our old friends François and Sir Mark decided to stick a few lines through the Syrian desert nearly 100 years ago, the Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Circassians, Chechens, Turkmens, Sunnis, Druze, Alawites, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox have been manipulated, favoured and disfavoured by the ruler of the moment to keep power, all the while simmering with unexpressed resentment towards each other and promised themselves that as soon as the fight for independence/democracy/independence again/democracy again was over, they could turn to working that out.  But it’s never happened, and now those divisions are hampering the opposition quite substantially.  This isn’t to suggest that I see a Lebanon-style collapse scenario to be likely in Syria – I don’t, but only because the Sunnis are so clearly a majority in Syria that it wouldn’t take them long to win, whereas the Sunnis, Shiites, and Maronites are about a third each in Lebanon and it took them 15 years of civil war to realise that none of them could dominate the other two.  In Syria, the Sunnis can.

But back to the plot.

This disorganisation leads us to two points:
(1) Unless the opposition pulls itself together significantly, Syria after the fall of Damascus will be a country of heavy to industrial-strength warlordism and fragmentation.  There will be little appetite for forming a united front and preventing the Ba’thists from forming a safe zone, particularly if Bashar has been captured (read: killed, on which more below).
(2) Therefore, if some of the Islamist militias decide that they’re going to hunt down the remaining Alawites in the north, the new government (assuming there is one) and its external backers will be powerless to stop them.

But what of the Alawites? Unlike so many others, I think it’s unlikely that they would try to form their own country.  For one thing, they would get no recognition.  For another, the geography of the region works against them.  The landlocked heartland around Qardaha in the mountains could not function for long as a viable independent state.  The coastal cities have a Sunni majority and would not take kindly to annexation.  Anyway, the last thing the Alawites would want, if they were under attack by Islamist militias, would be to turn that sectarian conflict into a secular matter of territorial integrity behind which the opposition could temporarily unite.  But although we may not see an Arab Republic of Jabal Lattakia, the Alawites are certainly petrified enough of being massacred in their thousands (and not without reason) that they will attempt to hold their territory until they can be fairly sure they no longer face an existential threat.

And they can hold that territory.  It’s mountainous, easy to defend, and familiar for them.  Assuming a warlord situation in Syria, the Alawite military remnants of the Syrian army would be the best armed, best trained, and would have a compelling reason to defend it.  The opposition fighters they face would be divided, unfamiliar with the territory, hampered by calls for restraint from moderates on their own side, and torn between prosecuting the battle against the Alawites and staying in Damascus to have as much say as possible in the formation of a new government.  In any case, the Alawites would be perfectly capable of defending themselves for a significant amount of time.

Now, we finally reach the end of this scenario, and we discover that the public knowledge that Syria had chemical weapons suddenly works in favour of the Alawites, who have such a military advantage that they can negotiate for nearly anything by offering to give up their chemical weapons.

What the Alawites would be aiming to get out of the negotiations specifically is less clear.  Although we can guess at their overarching goal – to no longer face an existential threat – the concrete steps they would encourage the new Syrian government to take in return for handing over or destroying their chemical weapons would depend heavily on the circumstances at that moment.  Allowing the Alawites to patrol and guard their own area seems like an impossible provocation, but much will happen which could alter that – and everyone else will be extremely eager to get hold of the chemical weapons.  In the end, Western WMD paranoia (and other chaotic factors like Syrian Kurdish autonomy, etc.) might force the new government to accept a situation which currently looks untenable.

And Bashar.  We come back to him.  He’s been in the limelight recently for giving another speech saying the same things: it’s all terrorism, it’s all externally funded, we are going to win forever. It’s Gaddafi all over again, which is curious, because Bashar is not as determined or deluded as Gaddafi and never has been.  Acting rationally, he and his family would have left long ago.  Gaddafi stayed in Libya until the end, but even he had the sense to flee Tripoli when things weren’t going his way.

But then, Gaddafi was the government.  There was no chance that he was being manipulated or controlled behind the scenes.  And after his death, most of his surviving family members did leave.  Bashar, who has always had his father’s Ba’thist allies peering over his shoulder, might well have no choice any more.  Right from the start I’ve doubted that the Asad family was fully in control.  That he has not at least sent Asma and the children away, even to Lattakia, suggests otherwise.  The old guard of the Ba’th Party was openly furious that Hafiz appointed his inexperienced son over one of his own generation.

It’s possible that the chemical weapons could be handed over in exchange for Asad getting safe passage to Russia or Iran.  More likely, what I said earlier about chemical weapons applies equally to the Asads: the Alawites may bargain to hand over the Asads and any other ex-ruling Alawites who are sought after to the ICC in exchange for being left alone.  Counterintuitively, the ICC might be the only thing which can save Bashar and his extended family from a gruesome public death.  If the opposition finds them, they will be killed.

I am, of course, assuming that the upper echelons of the Ba’th don’t sacrifice the Asads to the opposition before even leaving Damascus in order to reduce their own chances of being followed north.  It’s unlikely, but as the region fragments (big protests in Iraq, by the way) we are going to see a number of bizarre things before the pieces settle.  After all, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait led, in a twisted way, to the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.


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