The recent chemical attack in Damascus that killed hundreds and injured further thousands — what would be one of the worst chemical weapons attacks in the last three decades — has the world in an uproar. U.S. President Barack Obama and close ally, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, were quick to react with readiness to intervene and curtail the ability of any party in the war to use chemical weapons (though it now looks like Obama may go it alone in Syria). Obama’s ideal end game for Syria would be a client regime, but the aim of the military strike seems to have the least desirable and most realistic goal in the cross-hairs: not eliminate Assad, but weaken him enough to put him and his sponsors in a compromising position vis-a-vis postwar negotiations for peace and political reforms when the time comes.
The issue of chemical weapons has become the launching pad for any U.S. strike. But without direct proof, “who dunnit” remains an open question that has seperated the international community and stalled true multi-lateral action against Assad. In a pointed example, on Thursday, UK PM David Cameron admitted that there is no unquestionable evidence about who carried out the most deadly chemical attack of the war. Furthermore, the UN mission, headed by Carla del Ponte, whose aim is to determine the use of chemical weapons, but not who launched them, is finding contradictory evidence that the opposition has also employed the use of sarin gas.
To illustrate the manipulation of the information: Washington claims intercepted phone conversations prove the perpetrators were from the Syrian army, while at the same time some videos being circulated allegedly show a Syrian rebel group talking about using sarin. What is visible, however, is that partial and manipulated information is coming from all sides without solid proof offered by anyone.
A Matter of Perspective
But deepening the Syrian crisis through intervention is a recipe for disaster that is best avoided, even if the intention is to take chemical weapons out of the equation. Going forward, in order to understand the context of the Syrian civil war and evaluate if an intervention is a good idea, we have to account for several hard realities on the ground. Gaining a realistic perspective is crucial, because if diplomacy is to overcome the mistakes that can be made through war, there is still hope for a political settlement on the civil war in Syria.
First, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is no longer legitimate or relevant – it has failed to unify the opposition and lead the military effort against Assad. It is, de facto, one of the many groups and grouplings fighting the incumbent regime. It is not a dominant force in the proceedings, as most military gains are made by the Islamist groups operating in Syria. Its inability to show clear leadership and politically engage the other substate groups also means that it does not have the capacity, nor the ability to lead any proposed revolution against Assad. In short, the FSA is a non-factor in the outcome of the civil war and in the best case, it can only be a crutch for a larger player.
Second, the militant Islamic groups fighting Assad are the same groups that fought against America in Iraq and Afghanistan, and using the lingua franca of contemporary Western international relations – they are not rebels, but terrorists.
Third, building up on the previous point, financing the groups opposing Assad with money and weapons is the exact same policy as that employed by the Reagan administration to finance the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s – the end result was that the USSR was defeated and fell apart, Afghanistan was left in ruins, Mohammad Najibullah swung from a steel post (graphic content) and we got Al-Qaeda and 9/11. Point being, we’re financing the same terrorists we spent $1.4 trillion, thousands of lives and two wars in the last 10 years to fight. Why?
Fourth, harbouring any remaining delusions that a post-Assad Syria will be democratic should be dismissed immediately. The failures of the Arab Spring are visible: Libyan democracy does not exist and marauders continue to criss-cross the country at will. Egypt deposed Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and we’re back to the military, almost three years after the initial unrest. Iraq’s sectarian violence is approaching levels close to the worst months of the 2003-11 occupation. Tunisia still cannot agree on a constitution, de jure and de facto meaning that the country does not have a political system, and on top of that the murders of prominent opposition leaders aren’t exactly helping. In a word, Assad’s fall simply means more sectarian violence, ethnic cleaning and long-term warfare.
Fifth, the Russians and Chinese keep vetoing resolutions at the UN Security Council, but this may not last much longer. For Moscow, supporting Assad financially and militarily is an excellent export opportunity for its military-industrial sector, but also a way to exact a high financial and military cost from the West in the event of an invasion by stepping back altogether. Syria is not Libya and the Syrian army has proved to be a capable fighting force. Just one example is that Assad’s forces dispose with Yakhont anti-ship missiles, based out of mobile batteries. The acquisition of anti-ship combines with a somewhat outdated, but extensive air defence system, recently bolstered by the S-300, one of the latest Russian air defence systems. Even if Israel already bombed Syria twice, the planes may not have been brought down for fear of the civil war spilling regionally if Israel becomes actively involved. Simply put, dealing with Syria will not be the same as dealing with Libya and Iraq – else, a no-fly zone would have been a fact a long time ago – and losses might be expected.
Russia relocated their naval personnel to Cyprus from their traditional outpost in Tartus, but has at the same time focused an unprecedented naval detachment in the eastern Mediterranean. Russian reaction is ambiguous to predict: widening the conflict would draw them in, but not doing so might mean surreptitious help for the Syrians a la Soviet pilots flying in Korea and Vietnam. Most likely, the Russian presence is meant as a deterring factor against the escalation of missile strikes by the allied flotilla and a potential signal that it might also incur losses if the war escalates out of control.
Finally, any justification for an invasion will stand on thin ice, because the information coming out of Syria is contradictory, selective and much of it is propaganda favouring one of the many sides in this conflict – without complete information, it is impossible to pass judgement and justification for the actions of any party. The most recent example with the chemical attack comes right before the Assad regime asked the UN to investigate no less than three other cases of chemical weapon use, allegedly perpetrated by opposition forces. If the reality is that we have incomplete and contradictory information about Syria at all times, as far as the public is concerned at least, then there is an equal opportunity that the perpetrators were among Assad’s regime, FSA, terrorists, special forces (U.S. military, IDF, etc), CIA (coup experts department), or any other known/unknown party that finances and organizes substate violence in Syria. With this in mind, the legitimation for any intervention can only happen via the UN.
Yet, there is little choice in the United States than attacking: the Obama administration repeatedly called the use of chemical weapons a red line, promising to act if it were ever crossed – and now that it has painted itself into a corner, the time has come.
We can end article on an almost rhetorical note: what are the alternatives?
The second article of this two-part series will attempt to outline a possible scenario on the further development of intervention in Syria, should diplomacy fail totally.