Syria: war or manoeuvre?
While the US talks of proof of a chemical attack by Al-Assad, with sure consequences, some see this as empty rhetoric when Israel doesn’t want an unpredictable regional war, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
The chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta suburb of Damascus that caused 1,300 deaths, of which 60 per cent were women and children, triggered worldwide condemnation. It is difficult to predict where the repercussions will lead, but what is certain is the event will not pass unanswered, unlike other massacres that Syria has experienced in the past two and a half years.
Since 21 August, when the rural outskirts of Damascus were bombarded by toxic weapons, the Bashar Al-Assad regime has persistently denied responsibility for the attack and laid the blame on the armed Syrian opposition. Syrian authorities claim that during a raid of opposition fighters’ underground hideouts on the outskirts of Damascus, government forces discovered chemical substances, some of which could cause asphyxiation.
The regime’s strategic ally Russia and its regional partner Iran have remained, as they have been since the outset of the civil war in Syria, with Damascus’s position. A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated that there was "evidence" that militant insurgents have used chemical weapons. Moscow claimed that the Syrian opposition was preventing the UN inspection team from entering the afflicted area. The area in question is controlled by opposition forces.
The Syrian opposition, for its part, continues to insist that the regime is responsible and has called on international inspectors, who arrived in Damascus two days prior to the chemical attack, to expand the scope of their mission to include an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the massacre. Responding to Russia, opposition spokesmen announced that they were prepared to take measures to guarantee the security and safety of the inspection team during its probe.
France, the US, Turkey and other nations have also laid the blame on the Syrian regime. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that all available information indicates that the Al-Assad regime committed a "chemical massacre" on the outskirts of Damascus. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan echoed the charge and referred to Al-Assad as the "murderous dictator". Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the Syrian opposition had affirmed to him that it would cooperate with the UN chemical weapons inspection team, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticised Russia and China for the stances they took while declining to support a UN Security Council call that the Syrian regime allow the UN inspection team to conduct an investigation in the affected area. As for the White House, it instructed US intelligence agencies to collect the facts and evidence that would enable it to take the appropriate decision in response to the attack.
Washington was the source of the most salient and influential reaction so far. US security sources have stated that US intelligence agencies together with allied intelligence agencies have reached the preliminary assessment that Syrian government forces did use chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus. US national security advisors met with President Obama and concluded that the US would act carefully so as to ensure that it took decisions that were consistent with its national interests. Immediately afterwards came leaks from Pentagon sources that the US navy had sent a fourth destroyer equipped with Cruise missiles to the region and that the Sixth Fleet, which covers the Mediterranean basin, will leave another destroyer, the USS Mahan, in the eastern Mediterranean for the time being. Then US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that US naval forces were prepared to take action in the event that the White House made such a decision.
Several days ago, Jordan, to which some 550,000 Syrian refugees have fled, hosted a meeting of the chiefs of staff of 10 armed forces from Western and Arab nations, including the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The participants discussed the regional and international fallout of the Syrian conflict, a scenario for delivering a military strike against targets strategic to the Syrian regime, and the possible reaction to such a strike from Iran. A number of American F-16 fighters and Patriot missiles had remained in Jordan since military manoeuvres conducted there two months ago.
Some observers believe that Iran is wholly to blame for the chemical weapons attack and that Al-Assad had nothing to do with it. They argue that the Syrian regime had no need for chemical weapons to kill 1,300 civilians since killing civilians in large numbers is what it has been doing every day, using conventional weapons, aerial bombardments and mass executions. They claim that the "Iranian action" was part of Tehran’s game to break American will in the region by luring it into another regional war. The theory goes that the Iranians are calculating that the American response would be both harsh and hasty in their eagerness to impose regime change on Syria, towards which end they would bombard crucial regime targets to force it to surrender power within the framework of the Geneva 2 conference.
Other observers suspect that Russia had advanced knowledge of the chemical weapons attack. It would have been difficult for Syrian authorities to conceal a plan of this nature from Russia, which controls huge security breaches in the Syrian army, they argue, pointing to the thousands of retired and active Syrian servicemen who are married to Russian women. These observers suggest that the reason why Russia allowed the attack to go ahead was because it hoped to hasten the transitional process through a scenario that would force Al-Assad to make concessions.
Fahd Al-Masri, media spokesman for the joint command of the Free Syria Army, called for the creation of an international coalition outside of the Security Council framework, to intervene militarily in Syria. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly he said: "The US and the international community should launch aerial strikes against the military and security apparatus of the regime. There must also be an international court for war crimes in Syria." Al-Masri warned that the Syrian regime possessed an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and that it had sent a portion of these to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
According to The New York Times, this week Obama was contemplating the option of aerial strikes against Al-Assad’s forces in retaliation for that regime’s crimes against the Syrian people. The newspaper suggested that the response could take the form of what happened in Kosovo in 1999 when NATO intervened without a UN mandate. CBS added that the Pentagon is currently making preliminary preparations for a missile attack against Al-Assad’s forces from US destroyers in the Mediterranean so as not to put the lives of US soldiers at risk. The US television network stressed that such an assault would be solely "punitive" as opposed to being aimed at the overthrow of Al-Assad and his regime, in order to make him understand that he cannot use chemical weapons with impunity.
According to other US sources, the US military establishment is currently updating the list of critical military facilities and other strategic sites that could be targeted in the event of a strike in response to what experts have described as the worst chemical weapons massacre in two decades.
Loay Al-Maqdad, spokesman of the Free Syria Army chiefs of staff, told the Weekly that he believes the American list is ready and that the naval units that would carry out the strikes are already on alert. "We’re awaiting the zero hour," he said.
In contrast, Syrian opposition activist Walid Al-Bani was not optimistic that the international community would take the necessary steps to protect the Syrian people. "I’m afraid that these movements are being undertaken for totally different reasons. The US will not help bring down the Al-Assad regime without first ascertaining that there is an alternative that will serve its interests. Something might happen, but not what the Syrians hope for. Their path to freedom is still long."
Loay Hussein, president of the opposition Building Syria Movement, is of the opinion that the current talk of US or international military intervention in Syria is "just for media consumption". What would the US have to gain, he asked? "Israel’s interests overrides that of the US and Israel favours stability in the region and does not want it propelled in unpredictable directions. Israel fears that intervention would escalate into a regional war whose foremost participants would be Iran and Hizbullah. The decision to intervene militarily in Syria is contingent not on the US but on Israel’s will. Israel is the region’s policeman."
Certainly there are profound divisions within the governments that are keen to topple Al-Assad. The Obama administration is caught between one camp that is pressing for a strong and immediate attack and another camp that is cautioning against impetuousness. European nations are equally divided on the subject. Some, such as France and Turkey, have voiced their readiness to join an international coalition while others, such as Italy and Germany, are wavering for fear of the repercussions, and because they still believe that the chances are open for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Such divisions and hesitation combined with the inability of Western governments to persuade Russia and China to agree to the idea of toppling the Syrian regime within the framework of a consensus worked out in the UN leaves the question of intervention very much in the air. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine action before convincing proof is produced that the Syrian regime did in fact commit the recent chemical weapons assault. Then, even if a US-lead military operation does take place, the likelihood is that its aim will not be to save Syrian civilians and help them build democracy, since the Washington is committed to serving, first and foremost, the interests of the West, and of the US in particular.
So, as the situation stands, the choices appear to be between wavering and waiting to see which party in Syrian ultimately wins, even if the battle spans many more years to come.