Millennium Post

Dealing fairly with the Syrian crisis

It’s an irony of history that an adversary can sometimes rescue you from trouble better than a friend. So when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that the United States should defer its planned military attack on Syria if Damascus surrenders its stockpile of chemical weapons within a week, President Barack Obama eagerly grabbed the opportunity. That saved Mr Obama the embarrassment of facing the virtually certain rejection of his military-strike plan by the US Congress.

Rejection would have created an ugly domestic crisis and damaged Mr Obama’s credibility. Worse, had he gone ahead and attacked Syria as a punishment for its regime’s alleged use of nerve gas against unarmed civilians, he would have triggered off uncontrollable chaos and destruction in one of the most volatile parts of the world, besides mocking the United Nations and its Charter. In the event, the power of international public opinion—reflected in opposition to armed intervention in Syria expressed by a majority of people in the Arab world, in France, Germany and Britain, and by an impressive 71 percent of Americans—and mediated by lawmakers and diplomats at home and abroad, helped Mr Obama out. Obama won’t acknowledge this. But the least he can do is explore the historic opportunity offered today to pursue an honest, impartial and balanced diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis, which takes into account the complex, fraught reality of the West Asia-North Africa region.

The US position on chemical weapons is profoundly hypocritical. It indulged Saddam Hussein when he used chemical munitions against civilians at Halabja during the war with Iran—because he was then a US ally. It has never demanded that Israel ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and disarm its chemical weapons. But it conjures up great indignation at their alleged use in Syria. Chemical weapons were indeed used on August 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing hundreds of civilians. But there’s no conclusive evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s army used them. A United Nations team is investigating the matter, and could provide useful pointers to their source. But Mr Obama wasn’t prepared to wait for its report and declared the regime culpable.
The US released an intelligence report, based on satellite images and video clips, which suggests that rockets laden with toxic chemicals were fired at Ghouta from “regime-controlled territory”, but it hasn’t identified the army unit responsible, and established that it acted on the orders of the regime.
The Western case is weakened by widely different estimates of the casualties—1,429 dead, including 426 children (US), 281 dead (France), and 350 dead (Britain). The British only speak of “some intelligence” suggesting “regime culpability”. So the verdict against the Syrian regime is based on the assessment that “no one else had the capability”—hardly a case of “compelling evidence”.  
Of course, Mr Assad is no angel. His government is guilty of numerous human rights violations and suffers a crisis of credibility and authority. It has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for two-and-a-half years and faces armed opposition from a number of domestic groups, as well as mercenaries from more than 30 countries, armed and backed by Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Yet, it would be extraordinarily foolhardy, if not suicidal, for Mr Assad to use chemical weapons against his own citizens in a suburb of his capital—just when his forces are making significant gains against the rebels and when UN weapons inspectors are in Syria.

Toxic-gas weapons such as sarin, the nerve gas used in Ghouta, leave a unique chemical signature in the contaminated soil, which can be detected and identified even after years. Similarly, other details like the quantities of the chemicals used, their position, the devices deployed to disperse them, and they direction in which they travelled, can provide tell-tale clues. Given this, Mr Assad would have to be reckless, and more desperate than he has so far shown himself to be, to use sarin.
In contrast to the Western powers, both Russia and Iran say they have proof that the armed Syrian opposition carried out the chemical-weapons attack. The opposition has a history of stage-managing brutal anti-civilian attacks in order to generate adverse publicity for the government—especially through al-Jazeera TV, owned by the Qatar regime, which doesn’t hide its hostility to Mr Assad—and invite external intervention. This possibility cannot be excluded in the present case.
At any rate, the US has no legal mandate to intervene militarily in Syria. Under the UN Charter, such intervention either can only be in self-defence (which Washington manifestly cannot invoke), or must be authorised by a Security Council resolution.

But both Russia, which strongly backs the Assad regime and has armed it, and China, have repeatedly vetoed such draft resolutions over the past two years, and are certain to do so again. But having accepted the Russian proposal, the US cannot bypass the UN and act unilaterally. Unlike in the past, the US lacks even the backing of its NATO allies, including Britain, with its poodle-like “special relationship”. In a stinging rebuke to Washington, its Parliament rejected intervention in Syria. Germany, with elections round the corner, has washed its hands off Syria. And in France, which played a hyperactive role in Libya, 64 percent of people oppose strikes on Syria.

So the US’s potential allies will be reduced to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and possibly Israel—not even a fig leaf for a “coalition of the willing”, unlike in Iraq, Kosovo or Libya in the past. The idea of militarily punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred, rather than preventing an imminent disaster—the rationale cited earlier—makes very little sense. Global public opinion has turned against external armed intervention after the “intelligence botch-up” (read, cooked up evidence over weapons of mass destruction) over Iraq, leading to a costly war, mass civilian killings and terrible instability, and the destructive consequences of the toppling of Gaddafi in Libya, not to speak of the mess that the US is leaving behind in Afghanistan, where the casualties are many multiples of the number of Americans who perished in September 2001.

The international community will not easily stomach unilateral armed intervention—no matter whether the guise is “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” civilians against tyrants, “regime change” and “promotion of democracy”, or taking out mass-destruction weapons.
Even the often-divided Arab League has opposed intervention in Syria unless by the UN. And several personalities like former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Hans Blix have cautioned against a unilateral attack.

A diplomatic approach by the US could include several steps. First, it can help negotiate a ceasefire to the civil war in Syria, and promote reconciliation. The war has caused more than 100,000 deaths, untold economic devastation, and turned more than two million Syrians into refugees, besides internally displacing 4.25 million—figures comparable to the horrors witnessed in Rwanda in 1994.
The Syrian conflict has acquired a viciously sectarian nature, with the mainly Sunni opposition targeting both Alawite civilians and the Alawite-dominated security forces, and aggravating the Shia-Sunni divide—thus strengthening the reactionary Saudi influence, and weakening the Hezbollah militia, the sole force which has successfully fought Israel to a standstill.

Second, the US should at once terminate its de facto alliance with odious groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda, and the main force in the rebel Free Syrian Army. Backing al-Qaeda is a recipe for havoc and explosive instability in the entire West Asia-North Africa region.
Third, the US should welcome Syria’s decision to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, and demand that Israel also ratify it. (It signed it in 1993.) The reason why many Arab states didn’t originally sign the CWC, and why Egypt still keeps out of it, is that Israel has a substantial nuclear weapons arsenal, estimated larger that those of India and Pakistan put together, but isn’t a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the CWC.

Indeed, there’s a strong case for establishing and enforcing a Zone Free of all Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East and for negotiating a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace agreement with full statehood for Palestine. It’s of the utmost importance that the US is scrupulously impartial if it wants to promote real stability in the region and eliminate al-Qaeda’s influence there. Mr Obama must get out of the corner he has painted himself in with his arbitrary “red line” on Syria. This risks getting embroiled in Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s agenda to weaken Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, as well undermine Syria, Iran’s sole Arab ally.

Soon, another “red line” could be activated, over Iran’s nuclear programme. This will not only wreck the chances of a settlement which caps Iran’s uranium enrichment capability to sub-weapons-grade levels while permitting enrichment for peaceful purposes. It could set off a conflagration in the entire region, with horrific results. Preventing that is a top international priority. IPA

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