Did The World Just Legitimize The Assad Regime It Spent Years Discrediting?

For nearly two years, the United States and its key allies have been challenging the Syrian government’s claim to legitimacy. Some countries have recognized the Syrian opposition as the country’s legitimate government. Others have offered the rebels arms, military training, and advice. But in the real world, possession of territory counts for a lot. The ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

For nearly two years, the United States and its key allies have been challenging the Syrian government's claim to legitimacy. Some countries have recognized the Syrian opposition as the country's legitimate government. Others have offered the rebels arms, military training, and advice.

But in the real world, possession of territory counts for a lot.

The United Nations, for one, must rely on the Syrian government to gain access for humanitarian aid workers seeking to relieve hungry Syrian civilians, and cooperate with Syrian authorities to ensure the protection of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Damascus or U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.

For nearly two years, the United States and its key allies have been challenging the Syrian government’s claim to legitimacy. Some countries have recognized the Syrian opposition as the country’s legitimate government. Others have offered the rebels arms, military training, and advice.

But in the real world, possession of territory counts for a lot.

The United Nations, for one, must rely on the Syrian government to gain access for humanitarian aid workers seeking to relieve hungry Syrian civilians, and cooperate with Syrian authorities to ensure the protection of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Damascus or U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.

And today, as the U.N. Security Council gets ready to debate the establishment of a new U.N.-authorized chemical weapons monitoring regime in Syria, it is counting on the Syrian government to form a new partnership to achieve that goal. "We have been delegitimizing the Syrian regime and suddenly by virtue of this initiative the Assad regime is now a partner of the international community," said a senior Arab diplomat. "Of course it’s a good thing that these weapons and stockpiles be kept under safe control, but are we not inadvertently undoing what we have been trying to do for two years?"

Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, is worried that the new inspection initiative, which was first proposed by Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, will shift the international community’s focus away from holding the Bashar al-Assad regime accountable for mass murder — and toward maintaining the security of its chemical weapons stockpile.

"The concern we have is whether Assad is allowed to stay because he is willing to give up his weapons of mass destruction," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "I think this was tried before with a person called [Libyan dictator Muammar] Qaddafi. It didn’t turn out so well."

U.N. Security Council diplomats say they have no intention of letting Assad off the hook. A French-written draft U.N. Security Council resolution under discussion at the United Nations Tuesday threatens the use of force against Assad’s government if it fails to comply with the council’s demands: surrender control of Syria’s chemical weapons program and allow the destruction of the toxic arsenal. The draft resolution also calls for an International Criminal Court investigation into crimes in Syria, including the alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus.

But the prospects of securing the passage of a resolution that would hold Syrian officials to account for their crimes is uncertain at best.

A day after President Obama expressed hope of a "breakthrough" on Syria’s chemical weapons, Britain, France, and United States clashed on Tuesday with Russia over the terms of a plan that would place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision and require Syria to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dubbed a U.S.-backed French initiative threatening possible military action against Syria "unacceptable." The plan to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons "can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the United States in this sense reject the use of force," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a television address.

The Russian stance left in disarray Western plans to establish a legally binding inspection regime, backed by the threat of force. The move also raised questions about whether a diplomatic breakthrough welcomed by President Obama is still in reach. Yet Security Council diplomats said that Russia’s abrupt decision on Tuesday to drop its demand for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council suggested there was still hope of diplomatic progress.

In an effort to overcome Russian opposition, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to travel to Geneva to meet on Thursday with Lavrov. American, British, and French diplomats, meanwhile, pressed ahead here at the United Nations with efforts to refine the French U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government and placing Syria’s chemical weapons program "under international control" in preparation for their destruction.

If they succeed in gaining passage of their resolution, they will give the United Nations a new reason to do business with President Assad. The senior Arab diplomat said, "This all reminds me of Iraq, when Kofi Annan said he has a partner in Saddam Hussein," who then spent years in a cat-and-mouse game with U.N. weapons inspectors. "Do we know we have a partner in Bashar al-Assad?"

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.