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A man of Middle Eastern descent wearing Battle Dress Uniform and holding a rifle in the air walks down a street strewn with rubble and wreckage.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Syria divides

Andreas Gorzewski / cd
September 21, 2013

The use of chemical weapons in Syria has briefly overshadowed a civil war that has swallowed 100,000 lives - and continues taking more. DW takes a look at the interests and actors behind the scenes.


A chemical weapons attack in a suburb Damascus suburb sent diplomats and politicians scrambling throughout the world. Facing threats of a US attack, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to allow his country's stock of chemical weapons be destroyed. That sparked hopes of a comprehensive solution to the crisis. Yet veto holders in the UN Security Council remain at odds on very fundamental questions. Additionally, other countries are getting involved in the Syrian conflict.

What's being talked about at the UN Security Council?

The US, Russia and Syria have agreed in principle to destroy Syrian stocks of poison gas. To do so requires clarifying in detail how those poison gases can be safeguarded and eliminated. They will need experts, technical devices and guarantees of safety by warring parties.

On what points are UN Security Council members unified?

Russia and the West want to prevent poison gas from falling into the hands of Islamic extremists. In addition, they want to avoid any further escalation of the war in Syria, which would be likely in the event of a renewed chemical weapons attack. That's why they have agreed to the destruction of an estimated one thousand tons of chemical ordnance.

What are the points of conflict surrounding a resolution?

Three UN Security Council members - the US, Great Britain and France - want the resolution to include punitive measures in the event that Damascus does not cooperate. Up to this point, Russia has rejected that. Moscow does not want to issue carte blanche for a military strike against the Syrian regime as part of the elimination of weapon stocks. China, as the fifth permanent member of the UN Security Council, holds a position similar to Moscow's. Even with regard to responsibility for the chemical attack on 21 August that killed more than 1,400 people, opinions are divided, says Heiko Wimmen of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The question is who to punish, the Syrian expert says. While the West accuses the Assad government, Russia is pointing at rebels.

A silver-haired man wearing a dark blue business suit touches the shoulder of an older man in a sign of either affection or resignation.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently met for two days in GenevaImage: Reuters

Could the chemical weapons debate lead to a comprehensive solution?

Both sides have shown a willingness to talk. Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil has conceded that no party can currently win the war and has campaigned for a political solution. The opposition Syrian National Coalition has also demanded a peaceful solution. Iran has offered to mediate talks between the parties involved in the conflict. That said, a breakthrough is not in sight. Syria's opposition will only consider a post-Assad solution. Assad, meanwhile, is not thinking about leaving his post.

What are Russia's interests in the Syrian conflict?

Besides Iran, Russia has the closest ties to the Assad regime. Moscow delivers weapons and, through its veto in the UN Security Council, has prevented any decisive measures. According to Syrian expert Wimmen, Russia intends to demonstrate through its Syria policy that it stands by its partners more effectively than the US. Beyond that, the Kremlin does not want to allow itself to be dictated to by the West. "That's important for Russia's self-perception as a confirmed superpower," Wimmen told DW.

U.N. chemical weapons experts prepare before collecting samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus' suburb of Zamalka in this August 29, 2013 file photo. A report by U.N. chemical weapons experts will likely confirm that poison gas was used in an August 21 attack on Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of people, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on September 13, 2013. France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, told reporters that September 16, 2013 is the tentative date for Ban to present Sellstrom's report to the Security Council and other U.N. member states. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh/Files (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT HEALTH)--eingestellt von haz
Many of the 1,400 victims of the chemical weapons attack showed no outward signs of distressImage: Reuters

What kind of policy is the West pursuing?

At the beginning of the conflict, the West placed itself on the side of the opposition. However, the disunity of the rebels and the increase in power of radical Islamic resistance fighters caused Europe and America to worry. That's why no further modern weapons were delivered. In Washington, Wimmen says, there is no recognizable Syrian strategy. In fact, a portion of Republicans and Democrats are in support of weapons deliveries to rebels or even a military strike against Assad. These factions, according to Wimmen, have not been able to carry out their policy goals. The German government, too, has remained cautious, says Bente Scheller, who manages the Beirut office of the Green-Party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation. "I think every country is kind of floundering in how they deal with the crisis," she said.

What do Middle Eastern countries want?

Turkey has positioned itself against the Assad regime and is helping the rebels. "In the event the US decided to attack the Assad regime, Turkey would surely support," says Akif Okur, a political scientist at the Ankara Strategy Institute. Saudi Arabia, too, supports the uprising. In doing so, it hopes to weaken its rival, Iran.

A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon as his fellow fighter watches in Aleppo's Al-Ezaa neighbourhood September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Aref Hretani (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
A Free Syrian Army fighter - still fighting in mid-September near AleppoImage: Reuters

"If Syria were be split successfully from Iran and was driven back into its own camp, then you would have checked Iran's influence markedly," adds Wimmen in Berlin.

Iran does not want its allies in Damascus to fall. That's why Iran is not the only one sending weapons and personnel. The pro-Iranian Hezbollah group in Lebanon has sent troops to fight alongside Assad's own. Iran's newly-elected president, Hasan Rouhani, is now seeking talks with the West.

How are the Syrian government and opposition forces positioning themselves?

Damascus has declared itself ready to allow the destruction of its chemical weapons. In an interview with US broadcaster Fox News, Assad reaffirmed that the process would be complicated, protracted and expensive. Bente Scheller in Beirut believes the Syrian government is playing for time. Damascus, she adds, says it will cooperate - but will pursue its own interests. Opposition groups in Syria view things similarly. They lament that regardless of the chemical weapons debate, she says, the war, which has at this point resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000, is still ongoing.

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