If This Is Stability in Syria, What Does Chaos Look Like?

How It Works
Sept. 18 2013 5:28 PM

We Sure Wouldn’t Want “Chaos” in Syria, Would We?

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Rebel fighters shoot over a barricade towards regime positions in the Old City's front line in Aleppo on September 18, 2013.

Photo by JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

NPR’s Greg Myre has an interesting piece up noting that there now appears to be a contradiction between two stated U.S. policy goals in Syria: President Obama’s previous calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down, and the hope that his government will comply with international efforts to remove his chemical weapons.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.

This line, however, jumped out at me:

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As long as Assad still has stocks of chemical weapons, his ouster could create chaos in Syria that would further complicate efforts to secure and destroy the chemical arsenal.

Today brings news that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al Qaeda-affiliated group, has overrun a town near the Turkish border after fighting with the western-backed Free Syrian Army. The development highlights the fact that the Syrian war is not a two-actor conflict anymore. As Time’s Aryn Baker put it a few days ago, “For the past several months rebel groups aligned with ISIS in Aleppo province have spent nearly as much energy battling factions serving under the umbrella of the Western-leaning Free Syrian Army (FSA) as they have fighting the [Assad] regime”.

Meanwhile, a new Brookings report out today discusses Syria’s displaced persons. Combining the internally and internationally displaced, roughly six million Syrians have now fled their homes, a floating nation larger than Denmark. The authors note that the 2 million international refugees in particular present “political dilemmas for the host governments, particularly in their relationships with other countries in the region and in addressing the ethnic and sectarian balance in their own countries.”

All this is to say that the ship has kind of sailed on chaos breaking out in Syria.

If the calculation is really that Assad’s presence is necessary for the chemical weapons mission to succeed, this ignores the many opportunities he will have to slow the process down, as well as the fact that even if he cooperates completely, carrying out such an operation will be extremely hazardous and time consuming. Remember that the last time international chemical weapons inspectors were in the country they came under fire by snipers.  

On the other hand, the last two years haven’t exactly been kind to predictions that things can’t get worse in Syria.