Walking across diplomatic minefields in Syria


Red lines, military strikes, cold shoulders, and that pesky Sarin gas have been at the center of the news for the last few weeks as people around the world wait, holding their breath, for the Syria intervention crisis to resolve itself.

Since the confirmation that Syria used chemical weapons—what U.S. President Barack Obama designated in 2012 as a “red line” that would call for military intervention—Russia and the United States have been at the head of a diplomatic and humanitarian crisis, negotiating the proper next steps.

The relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained since beginning the negotiating process. It’s hard to look at the sharper points in the dynamic—for example, Obama’s suddenly cancelling a trip to Russia on August 7th —and not be reminded of the creeping Cold War ghost that seems to resurface every so often.

That said, as of late, the countries seem to be wading carefully through existent negotiations in the United Nations, and they seem to have agreed on a plan. Time will tell the viability of such a joint effort.

The United Nations Security Council, whose five permanent members are the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, have met multiple times to address intervention in Syria. Russia has repeatedly blocked such an endeavor, leading to intense American frustration and threats to act independent of the UN. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged in an op-ed to the New York Times last week that such a move would detract from the UN’s perceived international “leverage” and deteriorate the legitimacy of international law.


Russia, with an arms contract with Syria that in 2011 was worth at least $4 billion, has taken a strong stand behind the government of Bashar al-Assad, putting forth a position that the chemical weapons had been used by rebel forces and not by the Assad regime. Moscow is standing beside its ally, Assad, refusing to sign any agreement that would entail any military action against Syria.

A UN finding published on Wednesday, September 18 declared that the Assad government had fired rockets containing Sarin gas into the Ghouta suburbs on August 21. Before the report had come out, the US, France, and UK (along with many other nations) had already reported that the Assad regime had executed this. Russian deputy to the Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, called the results “politicized, preconceived and one-sided” according to CBS News.

Despite the tension, the United States and Russia developed a plan on Sunday, September 15 to eliminate the weapons. Russia argues that the United States should be hesitant about overthrowing Assad given the vulnerability of the region to Islamic extremist groups, who seem to be deeply involved with the rebel forces.

(Courtesy of Creative Commons)
(Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The US certainly doesn’t want al Qaeda or a similarly militant group heading the Syrian government, so they’ve been willing to negotiate.

The Syrian government, which appeared to be quite cooperative (although this is understandable, given the still very present threat of an American military strike), began to submit the details of a chemical weapons report on Saturday, September 21.

And everyone can exhale—just a little—because it seems that the US officials are pleased, having received a more comprehensive report than they were expecting in the first round, according to CNN.

The ultimate goal is to seize and destroy these weapons. It has been said that Russia may be a good option for the location for this process, given its global position and industrial capabilities. On Sunday, September 22, Russia reported that it would be willing to send troops to help remove weapons.

The next few days and weeks will be extremely telling for the future of intervention in Syria and moreover of US-Russia relations. On an even grander scale, they will be extremely telling for the future of intervention in civil conflicts at all, and the state of the East-West divide. We are watching our global leaders walk through a minefield, flinching with every step, praying that they don’t tread on a bomb that will blow everything up.

Keep holding your breath, and keep your eyes on the news.

Caroline Wray ‘17 is in Jonathan Edwards College. She is a Globalist Notebook blogger on Russia. Contact her at caroline.wray@yale.edu.