It was never any mystery that Bashar al-Assad was re-legitimized by the chemical disarmament accord agreed to last September between the US and Russia, which was then certified by the only UN Security Council resolution ever passed on the Syria crisis. But recent events have proved that Assad is now also a necessary military partner for overseeing the safe conduct of chemical agents out of Syria. The humanitarian implications of this fact are dire and already in evidence.
The regime, assisted by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is supposed to transport approximately 630 tons of chemical agents and toxic precursors from Damascus to the Port of Latakia by December 31 – less than two weeks away. By February 14, it’s meant to move an additional 700 tons of less toxic industrial chemicals to the same destination. The entirety of the 1330-ton Syrian chemical arsenal should then be offloaded onto a Danish ship docked at Latakia, and later transferred to the American bulk carrier Cape Ray, which will begin the process of seaborne hydrolysis sometime thereafter. Syria’s entire chemical program must be eliminated by the end of June 2014 in order for the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2118 to be fully satisfied. But there are big doubts that it ever will be.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an ex-commander of the UK CBRN Forces, has said that the conditions for transporting such high quantities of toxic substances through 300km of an active war zone are daunting, to say the least:
“Phase 1 planning for the movement to the Port is an extremely complex military operation with many factors which must be worked through in finite detail, from force protection, to logistics, communications, capabilities required, and many alternative options if things go wrong. Ideally, it would take a sophisticated military like the US or UK many days and weeks with great expertise to plan such an operation. One of the initial stages of military planning is working out whether you have enough ‘Troops to Task,’ or forces available, to achieve the mission.”
The regime hasn’t got “Troops to Task,” and its request to the UN to be outfitted with armored personnel vehicles, tanks, and other high-tech security equipment has been rightly denied owing to fears that such hardware would soon be put to use for martial purposes. Add to these complications the eminent possibility that any eventual convoy moving mustard, sarin, and VX through long stretches of contested terrain will be interdicted by extremist rebels who might unleash the toxins accidentally by exploding a roadside bomb underneath a container vehicle or confiscate what they can for their own use.
Russia, naturally, has offered to send all the asked-for equipment plus a small garrison of “observers” to help with chemical removals. However, as de Bretton Gordon notes, even if the Russians did send forces and everything else to Syria tomorrow, “it would still take them three or four weeks to get the vehicles” into the country. The New Year’s Eve deadline is therefore sure to be missed, as the OPCW’s Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu has acknowledged this week. Nevertheless, he still thinks the end-of-June target date for total program elimination is feasible. So does the United States.
In a background briefing held last Friday, a senior US defense official said: “The Syrians are taking the process very seriously. They recognize that they bear a lot of responsibility for getting the materials safely delivered. And they’re working closely with the OPCW, the UN, and the joint mission to conduct that part of the operation safely and effectively. Obviously it’s a challenging environment, and they’re working through that and taking security into consideration every day as they develop that.”
What this means is that Washington now expects Assad – not to mention his Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-trained proxy militias, including Hezbollah – to win decisive battles, and do so quickly, in that sensitive 300km corridor from Damascus to Latakia. It doesn’t matter what opposition the regime and its surrogates may encounter along the way, be it al-Qaeda jihadis, salafi rebels from the newly created Islamic Front, or moderate remnants of the US-supported Free Syrian Army. All comers can now be defeated with impunity, if not with the tacit encouragement of the Obama White House and other supposedly anti-Assad Western governments.
That’s bad enough. But the real hypocrisy and cretinism of this multilateral compact lies in the foreknowledge that no regime military operation proceeds without the mass murder and dispossession of scores of Syrian civilians. And we’ve seen plenty of examples of those in the last two months.
There are two road systems necessary for safe conduct of chemical agents from Damascus to Latakia. The first is the Damascus-Homs, or M5, highway, which the current battle for the Qalamoun mountain region is meant to secure, with the added objective of disrupting important rebel resupply routes from Lebanon. The second is the Homs-Latakia, or M1, highway, which the regime and Hezbollah and the IRGC-trained National Defense Forces have spent the past several months trying to clear. (Rebels still operate in the city and countryside of Homs and have in fact made some military gains in recent weeks.) Assad is indeed “taking the process seriously” in a “challenging environment” – by dropping bombs on residential areas abutting this motorway, slaughtering any inhabitants, and making refugees of whoever isn’t killed.
In mid-November, for instance, the regime waged an assault to retake Qara, a small town of 30,000 about 100km north of Damascus. Qara’s pro-revolutionary residents had for about a year preempted attack by bribing Syrian security forces and Hezbollah with cash, food, even livestock. But that was before Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, and various other rebel brigades got their hands on the Mouhin weapons depot and with it “mortar bombs, artillery and tank ammunition, and rockets,” as NOW previously reported. So Assad decided it was time to end Qara’s role as a resupply throughway. Hezbollah fighters and Syrian Army soldiers moved into nearby Deir Attieh, a loyalist town, from which they launched their attack on Qara with air raids and artillery shelling. The rebels gave up easily after only a day or so of combat. By November 19, the whole place had fallen, but not before more than 12,000 residents fled across the Syrian border to Arsal, Lebanon.
Next came Nabek. On December 7, it was reported that this strategically located town – about 80km north of Damascus, with a population of more than 100,000 – had been raided a day earlier by regime forces and Shiite militias. As many as 40 residents were massacred. Al Arabiya, relying on the Syrian Revolutionary Council, reported that the slain included men, women, and children. The Syrian Media Center of the Supreme Military Council, meanwhile, released a video claiming that Nabek had been under an intense siege for close to a month, pounded with heavy artillery and subjected to over 100 air raids. Suggestions that even chemical weapons had been used circulated among opposition groups and on social media, although none of these allegations have been substantiated. (It appears more likely, judging from a close examination of videos that have emerged from Nabek, that some type of incendiary munitions were dropped on the town.)
In fact, there may have been as many as three massacres in Nabek. Before the one on December 6, 70 bodies were uncovered, according to the Syrian Media Center, 40 of them belonging to the same family “who were in an area attacked by regime soldiers.” The third massacre killed 37, again with many of the victims coming from a single household. By December 9, Nabek had been retaken by the Assadists. On the same day, the regime seized total control of the M5 highway.
Finally, just this past Tuesday, the regime pounded Yabroud, the last strategic foothold for the rebels in the Qalamoun mountains. Roughly 76km from Damascus, Yabroud is where a dozen or so Syrian and Lebanese nuns taken from the Christian village of Maalula, are said to be held. Their plight has become the subject of intense international worry, which has included an appeal from Pope Francis.
There should be every expectation that the carnage along Syria’s prized motorways won’t stop, as rebels will no doubt try to regain lost terrain and the regime and its proxies consolidate their victories by “cleansing” former opposition-friendly neighborhoods. I hope all of these issues will be borne in mind by commentators and journalists writing approvingly of the “landmark” disarmament plan.
When Resolution 2118 passed unanimously at the Security Council on September 27, Ban Ki-moon hailed it as “historic” and “the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time.” He also said that it did not amount to “a license to kill with conventional weapons.” John Kerry said it was a “strong, enforceable, precedent-setting” document which proved “[d]iplomacy can be so powerful that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war.”
A license to kill is exactly what it amounted to and there has been nothing peaceful about the defusing of a weapon that has only killed a fraction of the 120,000 dead Syrians since 2011. Ban and Kerry were both horribly wrong.