Uncertain chemical-weapons claims in Syria

The Syrian city of Aleppo. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/watchsmart

The Syrian city of Aleppo

Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.

Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.

What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.

If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.

Read the full article at The Diplomat


The battle for Damascus

Douma district of Damascus. Freedom House Photo

Emile Hokayem, IISS senior fellow for Middle East security, has a piece in Foreign Policy on the ‘grand battle for Damascus’ currently gathering in the two-year-old Syrian uprising. Hokayem admits that this isn’t the first time that rebels have attempted to wrest control of the Syrian capital from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; there were earlier concerted efforts in July and December 2012, which were repelled or contained by the regime’s greater firepower. Nor can further ups and downs in the battle be ruled out. However, Hokayem argues, there is a lot more opposition to the Assad regime within Damascus than is generally understood, and the government will put up incredibly stiff resistance in the life-and-death battle to hold on there.

Hokayem sketches out the political geography of a city where the president can count on a large base of support from bureaucrats, others with ties to the regime, religious minorities and middle- and upper-class Sunni urbanites, but not on Christian and Alawite dissidents from the ‘suburbs’ (or the outlying towns that have been incorporated into the capital). Other areas that have not benefitted from the regime’s largesse or the growth of the previous decade – from the conservative, middle-class neighbourhoods of Barzeh and Midan to the poor Sunni area of Qaaboun – have joined the uprising.

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Khamenei douses hopes for nuclear talks

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

He is a mad mullah after all – mad meaning angry, that is. Following the positive notes sounded by US Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich last week, it did not take long for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to quash any optimism over the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the international community. These are scheduled to take place in Almaty on 26 February.

In a speech on 7 February, Khamenei ruled out holding bilateral talks with America on his country’s controversial nuclear programme so long as Washington continued pressure tactics. He claimed the US was proposing talks while ‘pointing a gun at Iran’, adding that: ‘Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America [but] negotiations will not solve the problems.’

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Bushehr fears stem from Iran’s nuclear deceit

Bushehr nuclear reactor. Photo: Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Let’s not exaggerate. Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is not another Chernobyl in the making. Unlike the ill-fated Ukrainian facility, Bushehr’s fuel rods are moderated and cooled by water, not flammable graphite. Bushehr also benefits from modern design improvements, including automatic control and containment systems.

Nor is Bushehr likely ever to suffer the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. The shallow Gulf waters bordering Bushehr cannot produce the kind of massive tsunamis that inundated Fukushima’s electricity and backup cooling system.

It should also be clear by now that Bushehr is not a proliferation threat. The reactor is used for electricity production and the spent fuel will be returned to Russia so the plutonium will not be available for reprocessing for weapons, if Iran were to obtain that technology. In any case, no country has ever used spent fuel from power plants for weapons purposes.

But let’s not sweep aside the environmental and safety dangers either, as Iranian officials are wont to do. Bushehr is located on an earthquake fault. The dust and heat of the local climate contributed to construction delays because of the difficulty of keeping equipment clean and cool. The grafting of a Russian-designed reactor onto the remains of an incomplete German structure and Iran’s contractual requirement for Russia to employ 35-year-old, leftover German pumps and other equipment made for other glitches.

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An Iraqi strongman calls

Nuri al-Maliki on his cellphone. Photo Kurd NetBy Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

As ‘Genghis Khan with a telephone’ in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin routinely picked up the receiver late at night to issue instructions that led to the imprisonment or execution of millions. Author Toby Dodge probably wouldn’t compare current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to the brutal Soviet leader; at the launch of his new book last week he steered away from describing Maliki as despotic as former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, Dodge’s portrayal of the Iraqi premier is of a man with ‘clear dictatorial ambitions’ who understands the utility of the telephone.

Dodge’s just-released Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism recounts how the PM’s office in Baghdad has subverted the military chain of command, directly ‘ringing up mid-ranking officers and issuing orders to them on their mobile phones’. It is one of the methods by which an initially unremarkable, ‘grey’ politician has managed to centralise power in the weak office of the Iraqi prime minister since his appointment in early 2006.

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Controversy after Kuwait signs GCC pact

The emir of Kuwait (right) 33rd GCC summit. Photo Bahrain News Agency

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, Middle East

Gulf states have finally managed to sign a major security agreement, after Kuwait came on board last month at the 33rd Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, held in Bahrain. Kuwait resisted the collective security treaty when it was first introduced in 1994, deeming it incompatible with its constitution and unlikely to make it through its parliament. Its decision to swiftly ink the pact in private at December’s GCC summit may have been prompted by recent unrest back home. However it is also further fuelling a mood of insurrection in Kuwait recently.

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No surrender from Syria’s Assad

Bashar al-Assad addresses supporters in Damascus
Some political commentators may scrutinise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s words over the weekend for a glimmer of hope. They might argue that he used defiant language during his speech at Damascus Opera House on Sunday – calling his opponents ‘murderous armed criminals’ and ‘Western puppets’ – to place himself in the best possible position ahead of any negotiations.

Unfortunately, that’s too optimistic, says IISS’s Emile Hokayem in a new piece in Foreign Policy magazine. Nearly two years into the uprising in his country, Assad still believes ‘that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms’.

Hokayem reports meeting regime sympathisers in Beirut who believed in a ’2014 strategy’.

‘Assad’s objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself.

‘The “peace plan” laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that,’ Hokayem believes.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy


Why Russia won’t help on Syria

Встреча Министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова и Президента Сирийской Арабской Республики Б.Асада, Дамаск, 7 февраля 2012 года - 07022012

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov with Syrian President Assad in Damascus

With all the high-level diplomatic visits to Moscow and accompanying news headlines, a casual observer might easily conclude that Russia holds the key to resolving the Syrian crisis, writes Samuel Charap, IISS senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia, in a New York Times op-ed. ‘But as the latest round of failed talks this weekend - this time between Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria – conclusively demonstrate, Russia will not be part of the solution on Syria.’

Charap says that some members of the international community continue to hope that Moscow can bring its influence on President Bashar al-Assad to bear on some sort of political transition. However, he points that the Kremlin has not only ‘fastidiously’ avoided joining the call for Assad to step down, but has also issued three UN Security Council vetoes during votes on Syria, and ‘bent over backward to water down the Geneva Communiqué calling for a peaceful transition of authority’.

Russia is not blind to the tragedy of the situation, but its approach to international intervention is very different from that of much of the rest of the international community, particularly the United States and the European Union. ‘Moscow does not believe the UN Security Council should be in the business of endorsing the removal of a sitting government,’ explains Charap. Indeed, it views many past US-led interventions as threatening to the stability of the international system and is not convinced that Washington’s motives in Syria are driven purely by humanitarian concerns. It even worries that giving its imprimatur to international action on Syria could potentially threaten ‘regime stability’ in Russia itself by creating a dangerous precedent that could eventually be used against it.

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Are we living through a second Nixon era?

Kevin Rudd at the Manama Dialogue

‘Historical analogies are often perilous and they are always inexact,’ IISS Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs Dr Dana Allin admitted, when posing a question to Australian MP and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (above) during the Fifth Plenary Session at the recent Manama Dialogue. Nevertheless, Allin continued, ‘I have long been intrigued by some parallels between the challenges facing the Obama administration and those that faced the Nixon administration 40 years ago.’ He ticked off a list: a war-weary American public; an economic crisis; a political crisis (although ‘largely selfinflicted by the Nixon administration and I do not think you can say the same thing about the Obama administration’); a major Middle East crisis; and the view that figuring out a relationship with China was vital.

How could America make a difference, he wondered. Was more energetic diplomacy going to be enough?

Rudd responded that he also saw ‘extraordinary parallels with the Nixon period’, partly because he was a keen China watcher. He said he had spoken to President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ‘a lot’ about dealing with the major challenges that American administration faced.

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Iraq: new boss better than the old boss?

AP 434-5As the international community debates how to respond to the crisis in Syria, it’s worth remembering that we’re approaching the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The country regained full sovereignty in 2011, after years of post-conflict reconstruction, counter-insurgency campaigns and state-building. However, serious questions loom over its post-intervention future.

In the IISS’s latest Adelphi, Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism, Dr Toby Dodge focuses on three: ‘Can Iraq avoid sliding back into civil war and can it reduce the still-appreciable levels of lethal violence seen since 2010? Will Iraq evolve towards a law-governed, pluralistic polity that in some way resembles the interventionists’ dream of an Arab democracy? Will Iraq once again pose a security threat to its neighbours?’

Dodge also provides some insight into perhaps the most important debate of all: are the lives of ordinary Iraqis better today than under Saddam Hussein?

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