I suppose it could have been worse. The Norwegian Nobel Committee might have awarded this year’s peace prize to U.S. President Barack Obama again. But aside from that, it’s hard to imagine a more ridiculous recipient than the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
This isn’t actually meant to disparage the OPCW, which oversees the destruction of chemical weapons by states that have pledged to do so. Thanks to OPCW’s monitoring, for example, we can now rest easy knowing that Albania no longer threatens the world with mustard gas.
But let’s be frank. The OPCW received the award because it has been charged with supervising the elimination of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal. It has that mandate because of a deal the United States blundered into with Russia that allows Assad’s regime to continue it’s brutal suppression of an uprising, so long as it no longer does so with chemical weapons.
Nobel Laureate Barack Obama claims Assad’s decision to give up his chemical weapons is a result of the “credible threat” of American military action to punish him for Syria’s sarin gas massacre on August 21 that killed more than 1,400 people. Even if we accept the notion that Assad was scared straight by a looming attack that Washington took great pains to assure the world wouldn’t amount to much, so what?
The problem with red lines, as François Heisbourg, a special advisor at the Foundation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris, put it in a recent interview, is that they have two sides. If action on one side of the red line, such as gassing children, will draw a response, it is implicit that action short of that red line — say, cutting their throats — will not. Obama’s red line simultaneously proscribed some behaviours while allowing others. The deal struck by America and Russia, and endorsed by Syria, formalizes that red line. Now a Nobel Prize for the OPCW gives it the aura of not just legitimacy but, obscenely, of peace making.
Let’s at least be clear about what this deal has accomplished. A type of weapon responsible for a small fraction of the more than 100,000 victims of the Syrian civil war may be removed from the battlefield. Nothing has been done to mitigate the ongoing slaughter. Clerics in Damascus recently issued in edict giving permission for starving residents of a rebel-held suburb to eat dogs and cats — normally forbidden sources of meat. The clerics said the hungry might soon be forced to eat the dead.
Christopher Stokes, general director of Médecins Sans Frontières, has said aid convoys wishing to travel to areas where they are needed are blocked, while chemical weapons inspectors get waved through. He calls the situation “absurd.” The Nobel peace prize makes it all the more so.