Central Asia and the Syria Crisis: Assessing the Value of Strategic Partnership with the U.S

by Nathan Barrick on 9/6/2013

With world attention justifiably focused on the potential for U.S.-led punitive strikes against Syria for President Asad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, it is worth a momentary glance to survey Central Asia’s equities in the issue.  For many world governments, including in Central Asia, the issue is less about Syrian civilians dying by chemical weapons than it is about the lessons nations can draw from the international diplomatic furor and the further consequences of the Syrian civil war writ large.

Sadly, the victims in this heinous act — heinous regardless of who has perpetrated it – will receive scant attention.  If one were to listen to a growing number of conspiracy theories regarding the 21 August chemical weapons incident, the narrative is that close scrutiny of the victims might present problems for justifying a punitive strike against Syria.  For those with more caring hearts, one might hope that UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for more protective assistance to Syrian civilians be at least an outcome.

Many observers of the Syria crisis are readily noting that Iran is watching how the U.S. addresses this WMD-issue in Syria, but there will also be important consequences well beyond Iran.

Central Asia is watching too…

The U.S. has, for decades, expressed a strategic interest in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including nuclear, biological, and chemical munitions.  In pursuing this U.S. strategic interest, Central Asia has been an unqualified success story.  Funding of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs by Nunn-Lugar legislation has resulted in phenomenal progress in Central Asia, especially with Kazakhstan’s and Uzbekistan’s willing cooperation.  The shared vision ultimately contributed to Central Asia’s declaration of a Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (CANWFZ), ironically ratified over the objections of the United States.  (The U.S. argued that CANWFZ treaty language was ambiguous and would allow Russia to exploit loopholes to deploy or transport its nuclear weapons in Central Asia.)  In terms of chemical munitions, Uzbekistan permitted the U.S. to spend almost $6 million towards cleaning up anthrax at Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea and an additional $8.5 million in assistance to dismantle a chemical and biological weapons facility in Nukus, now a ghost town.  The U.S. also helped Kazakhstan dismantle an anthrax production facility in Stepnogorsk.

CTR successes should also be claimed in the Central Asian states’ agreements to international treaties, including the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).  All five Central Asian states have ratified the CWC:  Turkmenistan (25 SEP 94), Tajikistan (11 JAN 95), Uzbekistan (23 JUL 96), Kazakhstan (23 MAR 00), and Kyrygzstan (29 SEP 03).  Central Asia’s agreement to the BTWC is a bit more complicated in international law terms:  Tajikistan (27 JUN 05) and Kazakhstan (17 APR 07) have both ratified the BTWC; Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan ‘acceded’ to the BTWC on 11 JAN 96, after it was already enforced; and Kyrgyzstan ‘succeeded’ on 12 OCT 04 to BTWC by accepting the same reservations and legal obligations as the Soviet Union.  However, none of the Central Asia states has signed the Geneva Protocol against Chemical Weapons, which is generally considered an accepted part of international law since before the Soviet Union collapsed.  Interestingly for legal arguments about punitive measures, criticism of the Geneva Protocol, the only chemical weapons related international treaty that Syria has signed, includes that it does not prohibit use of chemical weapons in a civil conflict within a signatory’s territory and that it would allow for chemical weapons in retaliation (no first use).

Beyond Syria-centric issues related to a U.S. response for the 21 August 2013 incident in Syria, are the implications for U.S. strategic interests in CAS such as nonproliferation of WMD and developing long-term partnerships. U.S. failure to act punitively against Syria could potentially damage decades-long efforts to restrict access to and diminish stockpiles of WMD, and be perceived by other states as a license to use chemical munitions against their own populations in a civil uprising.  Human rights and improved civil society advocates have repeatedly voiced concerns and criticism about authoritarian government practices in Central Asia. Fortunately, the risk is low that the governments of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan would begin WMD programs, but that is partially due to shared CTR successes and Russia’s previous support to CTR efforts.

Even if Central Asian governments do not initiate WMD programs, the rumors of stockpiles of WMD-related materials would likely increasingly draw both state and non-state interest in chasing those rumors, given likely perceptions of U.S. powerlessness to prevent WMD use. Alarmist concerns in this vein are not new. In 2004, the authors of an Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis report memorably claimed, “The ‘Silk Road’ of the 21st century may carry some of the most dangerous materials ever devised.  Tracking those shipments will require greater surveillance and reconnaissance of existing smuggling routes; a clear nexus thus exists between interdiction of the drug trade and efforts to prevent transfers of WMD-related material.” Additionally, there are experts with skills in the WMD field that are underemployed in Central Asia and, periodically, usually spurious rumors of possible extant munitions surface, such as at Karshi-Khanabad (K2)  Airfield in 2005.

The non-state actor interest would be particularly disturbing for Central Asian governments.  Media reported in April 2013 about Kyrgyz fighting alongside Islamic extremists in Syria and the speculation that these extremists might return to Kyrgyzstan is a real concern, even if it is probably more likely that these young men would follow jihad to extremist-targeted nations closer to Syria.  The same article cited sources claiming each Central Asian state likely had a number of citizens fighting with Sunni extremist groups in Syria.

Russia believes that U.S. punitive strikes targeting the Syrian government would, in effect, aid Al Qaeda and other sunni extremist groups the world has been fighting for over 15 years.  Russia chooses to focus on the perspective that the Syrian government is fighting a battle against Islamic extremists and this message likely resonates with Central Asian governments.  Official silence from Central Asia on Syria should not disguise the real sympathy with Russia’s perspective.  Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian state to issue an official statement regarding alleged chemical weapons usage in Syria, but President Nazarbayev is attending the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg as an invited guest of President Putin and he will likely provide at least tacit, moral support to President Putin’s stance on Syria.

Turning to the issue of security partnership with the United States, each of the Central Asia states has to some degree assisted the international, but U.S.-led, effort in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have each provided temporary basing.  The support to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), mostly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but also Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has been very important to supporting the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.  Russia has also supported the NDN and sponsored Central Asian roles in the NDN.  The Russia-U.S. standoff over Syria is unlikely to carry over into the NDN, because all parties in the NDN perceive the effort as addressing vital national security interests.  However, how Central Asian states assess their prospects for long term security cooperation partnerships will undoubtedly be affected by lessons drawn from watching the U.S. and Russia sparring over the way ahead in Syria.

The U.S.’s closest Central Asian partners have already begun to question America’s commitment to the region given the expected U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan post-2014.  These nations continue to express security concerns about potential threats out of Afghanistan and the north Caucasus.  Even if the immediacy or scope of those concerns can be questioned, no one can deny extremist rhetoric exists claiming an intent to attack governments in Central Asia.  While the United States promises to remain engaged and continue security cooperation, U.S. defense leaders stress the need for fiscal stewardship.   Central Asia likely wonders if U.S. security cooperation will be reduced if U.S. attention becomes more involved in and around Syria.  Comparatively, U.S. resources applied to Syria’s neighbors – Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey – already dwarf security assistance provided to Central Asia by an overwhelming amount.  How attentive will the U.S. be to the long-term security interests of its Central Asia security partners and how will the U.S. demonstrate commitment to Central Asian partners?  In watching what happens in Syria, will the U.S. provide the same sort of unconditional support to Central Asia that Russia appears to provide its security partners like Syria?

In the end, Central Asian responses to U.S. actions in Syria with regards to future security cooperation will vary from country to country.

  • Kazakhstan will likely continue to engage the U.S. in security cooperation regardless of what happens in Syria; its approach is to prioritize the relationship with Russia, but balance a multi-vector approach with China (in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and the United States.  Kazakhstan’s strategic objective is to become a more important nation on the global stage and President Nazarbayev has carefully selected international efforts to become more involved in – chairmanship of the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe in 2010, hosting P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear program and major conferences for other international organizations, and bidding for international sporting mega-events like the Winter Olympics.   Kazakhstan likely views Russia’s support to Syria as reassuring that Kazakhstan has chosen the right priority partner and neighbor with whom to most closely align.  However, Kazakhstan’s desire for international stature will mitigate the potential for any negative consequence to the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship caused by its views about U.S. actions in Syria.
  • If the U.S. does not act decisively to pursue its stated strategic interests regarding WMD-related issues, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will likely be firmly convinced that Russia is a more effective and reliable security partner than the United States.  For these two countries, both with a sizeable Russian military presence, a wavering U.S., unable or unwilling to support regional allies decisively, will likely not be worth courting, particularly when Russia has demonstrated a willingness to defy the West in support of its Syrian partner.  However, a U.S.-led strike on Syria will not necessarily change these countries’ prioritization of the relationship with Russia.  Instead, it would affirm their willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on mutual security interests and assuage concerns of possible abandonment by the U.S. post-2014.
  • Turkmenistan will be least directly affected by U.S. and Russian stances on Syria, because its policy of neutrality has held both countries at a distance in security cooperation.  More significantly for Turkmenistan however will likely be how the United Nations is perceived after the Syria crisis.  Turkmenistan has expanded its relationship and cooperation with the UN in the past decade, and any perceptions of UN failure or irrelevance might cause Turkmenistan to reconsider its foreign and national security policies.
  •  Uzbekistan will be caught in a strategic dilemma if the U.S. does not act decisively regarding its stated strategic interests in Syria.  After independence from the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan sought Western security relationships as security guarantees against a return of a Russian empire.  After many years of Uzbekistan’s disappointment over Western criticism of socio-political issues in Uzbekistan, the events of Andijon in 2005 resulted in a break in the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship and a turn towards Russia and China.  However, Uzbekistan’s geo-strategic perceptions about Russia soon resurfaced and it rebuilt its relationship with the U.S. by again offering cooperation on Afghanistan and severing some security ties to Russia.  The dilemma will take time for Uzbekistan to resolve and the U.S. would likely have opportunities to salvage the relationship, but the U.S. would have to act pro-actively and likely generously.

In conclusion, Central Asia is watching too… not because they will seek to develop and acquire chemical weapons to use against their populations, but to note how much confidence they can place in a security partnership with the United States, or even if they should re-evaluate and partner more closely with Russia.



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This post was written by...

– author of 8 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan Barrick has consulted on Central Asia and national security issues with multiple organizations, government and corporate, including testimony before Congress. He is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer for Russia-Eurasia and has a Master's Degree from the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University. His views as published are his own and do not represent any other organizations. Follow him on Twitter @Nates_Notes

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