By Sara Batool

Sep 25, 2013

Destruction-of-Syrian-chemical-weapons-begins[1]International relations in the 21st century have witnessed that strategic calculations and power remain an essentially important ingredient of the state’s behavior. The “Chemical Dilemma” in the Syrian crisis has been a game changer, adding new complications to the prolonged crisis. It resulting in war-mongering leaders around the world deciding that ‘punitive intervention’ was required in Syria. International reactions to the attempted political maneuver by global powers however, shows that history has reached a point where the decision for “going to war” can no longer be taken by the heads of state alone, rather it will increasingly be done by those who are to pay for that war. The spread of democratic values and norms and the elimination of the threat of terror to ensure peace and stability across the globe has been the widely practiced mantra of the West so far, specifically the US. US policies however have not been very successful in buying peace – rather, it has increasingly rendered the international system more ‘anomic’.

The over two-year long unrelenting crisis status of the Syrian Republic seemed to be at a tipping point when the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem announced Syria’s willingness join the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This decision came before the United Nations inspectors’ final report over the purported use of chemical weapons in an August 21st attack near Damascus. According to the  report, inspectors found “clear and convincing” evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve gas Sarin were used in the attacks, and that chemical weapons had been used “against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale” in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zalmalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.

The Chemical Weapons dilemma has raised many questions; the most important question of “whether to eliminate the chemical weapons stock pile or to punish the Assad regime” has become a tough decision, with international heavyweights facing more complexities than ever, hindering them from reach a quick decision. The highly anticipated UN report confirming the use of chemical weapons was only five pages long, but has set free innumerable words of argument. The divide is classically East-West, with the ambiguity lying in the fact that the report did not confirm from which side the rockets were launched, instigating a debate on who was to be blamed for the attack.

Furthermore, the crisis would have had a very different outcome without resurgence of Russia to dissuade states from using the US option of a ‘limited military strike’ on Syria. The US decision of a military strike is currently on hold until a plan of action is identified. The US aim for the strike is to punish the Assad regime, but how it plans to de-weaponize Syria or prevent it from turning to its chemical stockpile again is not yet clear. Perhaps this time the US is more interested in using diplomatic channels to eliminate WMD’s from Syria, signaling to the world its position as an ardent advocate of the non-proliferation policy.

The projection of an attack to punish Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons has uncovered Obama’s strained and somewhat cautious relationship with the military. His dramatic fluctuation from disinterest in Syria to the brink of military action, and ultimately resolving for a potential diplomatic solution, has disturbed many people in uniform. Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, two former defense secretaries of Obama are of the view that Obama shouldn’t have asked Congress to approve a strike, and both were skeptical and sometimes sarcastic of the current Russia-backed negotiations to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons. Panetta favored the strike option, saying he supported a strike because Obama needed to enforce the “red line” he set over Syria’s use of chemical weapons. However, the war weary generation of senior commanders and veterans seems to be irritated by the decision of new military intervention. Their disinclination was clued-up by the failing war endeavors wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today and through history, the perception of the US elites, public and the world opinion remains largely unchanged about the use of force. It was President Lyndon Johnson who decided to opt for Vietnam War, fearing that he would lose his Presidency if he did not do so, but found his undoing in the war.

For Russia, it appears to be the first time since the Cold War that it has leveled up the US on the table. Syria has been an important partner to Russia and it will lose much if Assad regime loses, as the Syrian port of Tartus provides Russia with its only naval base in the Mediterranean.

The overwhelming Syrian Crisis has absorbed different regional and intra-regional forces pursuing different interests, and with no end in sight, the conflict promises to bleed the Syrian local population, while Cold War adversaries choose their own allies in the Syrian ground. However the options currently on the table are still troublesome for every regional and intra regional actor. Whether Syria lives up to its commitment to disarm its chemical weapons or not, the use of chemical weapons has been a game changer for Syria and for all international actors involved in it. However, the elimination of the chemical weapons under the regime of Assad has gained preference over the removal of the Assad regime. More importantly, it is time that the advocates of democracy should uphold their principles rather than getting involving in armed conflicts with non-democratic states. For a war to be decided in a better way, the void left after the removal of the Assad regime can be more disturbing for the peace in region.

Sara Batool
The writer is Research Associate at Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies. The views expressed in this article are writers own and does not reflect the views of the Centre.

The Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (CPGS) organized a roundtable discussion on “Deterrence Stability in South Asia,” on September 17, 2013 at the CPGS Offices Islamabad. This Roundtable was attended by renowned scholars and academicians from the field.

The aim of the roundtable was to discuss some of the important recent developments at both regional and global levels, as well as their impact on deterrence stability between two nuclear armed nations in South Asia – Pakistan and India. These regional developments include:

  • The US waiver-ship to India, and offer for large scale nuclear cooperation under the 123 Agreement in the same year; this, according to many in strategic circles, has reversed about a half century of US non-proliferation efforts and undermined global efforts to prevent more states from acquiring nuclear weapons. It also has the potential to trigger a nuclear arms race in South Asia;
  • The shifts in the Indian nuclear doctrinal thinking, as seen through the move from “punitive nuclear retaliation” to a doctrine of “massive retaliation”. Another example is the emergence of dangerous, provocative, and destabilizing ‘limited war’ military doctrines under the nuclear umbrella, such as ‘Cold Start Doctrine (CSD)’, also known as ‘Proactive Operations’;
  • The Indian pursuit of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) shield and its undermining impact on the deterrence stability between India and Pakistan; the resultant push for Pakistan to increase its offensive strategic capabilities and capacity;
  • India’s strengthening strategic partnership with the US, European Union and Russia and the resultant Indian conventional and strategic arms modernization – its sensitizing effect on Pakistan’s threat perception;
  • The presence of extra-regional forces in the region, their force postures and uncertainties about their intentions;
  • The emergence of cyber warfare as a new dimension in the contemporary nuclear debate in South Asia.

In the back drop of these realities and the consequentially unfolding strategic landscape, the trends in Pakistani strategic thinking are also changing. A prime example of this phenomenon is the Pakistani development and tested firing of its tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) as a counter measure to the Indian CSD, in an attempt to dissuade India from pursuing limited ‘proactive operations’ in Pakistan.

The argument here is that the induction of nuclear deterrence at the tactical level will deter foreign aggression and conflict at ‘all levels’. There are however, risks of restarting an arms race, and as such, strategic restraint regimes should be activated. Nuclear CBMs and CSBMs should be reinitiated.

Understanding needs counter-narrative formulation, and CPGS aims to take the lead in organizing a cohesive, coordinated response development based on local realities and Pakistan’s stance.

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