Syria – teetering on the knife edge

Spearhead Analysis – 05.09.2013

By Sarah Eleazar
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research – Pakistan

assad-obama“This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, “Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.”

The specter of an American attack on Syria, albeit ‘restricted’ and only to ‘degrade’ Assad’s military capability, has begun taking definitive shape in the form of the US Senate’s draft resolution that is to be voted on by the full Senate once members return from recess on September 9.

The five US Destroyers carrying more than 40 cruise missiles (non-ballistic), a satellite-guided weapon that carries a 1,000-pound warhead and an amphibious ship are positioned in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to strike at command. US officials said the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and four ships in its strike group moved into the Red Sea on Monday. The US will mull over the idea of targeted airstrikes on hoardings of these chemical weapons, as part of its ‘limited’ strike. The chain-of-command in the use of chemical weapons could be targeted as well.

The Senate draft resolution on the intervention limits US engagement in Syria to 60 days, with an extension of 30 days, and prohibits US boots on the ground. Even though the draft states that there is ‘clear and compelling evidence of the direct involvement of Assad regime forces’ in the August 21 chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta, the resolution categorically specifies that the intervention must be ‘limited and tailored’ and only serve to ‘deter and degrade the potential future use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government’.

The president’s office and now the Senate appear to be treading glass shards in view of an overwhelming public opposition to the intervention. The Senate’s support for a restricted intervention comes in the wake of several American public opinion polls vehemently opposing further warmongering. Only 11 per cent of the Americans surveyed in a Reuters poll, published on August 24, believed that Obama should do more than sending arms to rebels…89 per cent said that he shouldn’t intervene at all. Could Obama now be toeing the red line Americans have drawn for him?

The president has insisted that this will not be another Iraq. That is indeed fortunate considering America’s trigger happy reactions to the threat of weapons of mass destruction… chemical weapons (such as used in the eastern Ghouta attack) are not classified as such. Obama does, however, have more European countries supporting the intervention than Bush had for his voyeurism in Iraq.

A recent stanchion to the war could in fact come from war wary Germany. Though Germany has agreed not to participate in a military intervention in Syria without UN approval, BND Head Gerhard Schindler told select MPs on Monday that German agents had, like Mossad officials, intercepted a conversation between a high-ranking member of the Hezbollah, which provides the Assad regime military support, and the Iranian Embassy. They spoke about how Assad had lost his nerve and had made a big mistake by ordering the chemical weapons attack.

He corroborated American reports about 107mm rocket casings found at the scenes of the gas attacks and said that the Assad regime possessed such rockets in large numbers. It was unlikely that the rebels could have carried out such a concerted attack.

So far, US’ intel on the issue had come from Mossad that claimed that it had intercepted communications of top Syrian officials ordering the chemical attack. Yet there was no audio evidence to substantiate that claim. Considering Netanyahu’s tactless statement of making Syria ‘a testing ground for Iran’, any claims by Mossad could be deemed dubious at best. However, Germany’s take on the current crisis will be taken much more seriously.

The UN has asked for three weeks to carry out a laboratory analysis and technical evaluation of the evidence it has collected so far. Political dynamics must not go ahead of due process here as UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has pointed out many times. If the inspection team proves ‘beyond doubt’ that chemical weapons had been used, the Security Council will be moved for action regardless of whichever side had carried out the attack, he said.

Putin agrees. Russia could approve a military operation in Syria if evidence showed that Damascus had carried out the chemical weapons attacks…only if the operation was conducted with UN approval, he said during an interview.

Assad, who has so far vehemently denied the charges, has put his credibility on the line in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro. “Whoever is doing the accusing must come up with proof. We have challenged the US and France to provide a single piece of proof. Messrs Obama and Holland haven’t been able to do so, even to their own people,” Assad told the paper.

BND Head Schindler, at the high level meeting with MPs, confessed that he too could not provide conclusive evidence pointing at Assad’s involvement in the matter.

The stone soup starts to thicken when one considers all the assorted fingers in the pie. Assad and Putin appear to be on the same page when they say that it was ludicrous to assume that the government would sanction the attack when it had already surrounded the area and was closing in on the rebels. The government has superior arms strength compared to the rebels so what can those sponsoring the rebels do? Fill in the missing link in their capabilities. Since they cannot simply give the rebels airplanes and missile systems – it is impossible to teach them- the only way is to strike themselves. For that, they need a reason. The losing side has to provide that reason…and it has, according to Putin.

An unlikely self-righteous alliance of Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda, the TTP, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and America have set out with eyes on the prize. The movement is now far- much too far- from where it began. The Arab Spring, in light of the aftermath in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and other countries that jumped on the democracy bandwagon, appears to have recoiled into a chaotic melee. The hardest hit of these is Syria, where both sides are bent on fighting till death.

The descent into chaos however, was in each case exacerbated by foreign powers -read America- swooping down to save these countries from evil dictatorial regimes.

David Cameron braved that one trip to the House of Commons and was near booed out for suggesting military intervention. You cannot kill people who you think kill people to tell people that killing is wrong.

US interventions have a habit of creating a void that competing groups squabble over to fill. The consequences of ‘punitive’ action on Syria are a topic Kerry seems to have glossed over while priming the Senate for the big vote.

Assad, in his interview, spoke about the powder keg in Middle East, the fuse of which is shortening slowly but surely. Will this war give way to a full blown regional conflict? If so, a miscalculated proportion of poison in the gas attack is the least of Syria’s worries.

Saudi Intelligence Head Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s meeting with Putin last month shed some light on the hard-nosed realpolitik on either side. Not only did Bandar offer Syria a sweeping deal to control the world oil market and safeguard Russia’s gas contracts, but also ‘threatened’ Putin with an attack on the Winter Olympics to be held in Russia next year.

“The Chechen group that threatens the security of the Olympics is controlled by us,” the prince told Putin quite unabashedly.

Back in Syria, both sides of the conflict have appear to reach an impasse. A US intervention to exhaust Assad’s military capabilities could pump lifeblood into the rebellion. But then both sides have also committed equally horrifying atrocities in their own capacities.

There are of course ‘peaceable’ ways of dealing with the conflict. The UN is insisting on going through with the Geneva Round Two. The Senate’s draft resolution too mentions the need to take both sides to Geneva and sort the matter out eventually. There are other ways. Whoever is considered responsible for the nerve gas attacks, could be held accountable for war crimes before a UN tribunal.

The question of whether Sarin gas was used and by whom, as far as the UN are concerned, still remains. While most of the intelligence reports so far make allusions to Assad’s involvement in the chemical weapons attack, they cannot establish his guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ as is the UN’s norm.

Ban Ki Moon needs to mobilize all UN action around Syria. The war ravaged country has suffered its inaction for far too long. The sentence for Syria- be it the rebels or Assad- must come from the UN.

More than two million Syrians have crossed the border into Sweden and neighboring countries seeking asylum. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, called it “the great tragedy of this century”. Sweden has opened its borders for Syrians as it does not believe the war in Syria is likely to end soon.

“We believe that a strong man is one who prevents war, not one who inflames it,” Assad said referring to Obama.

At least Pakistan knows what side it’s on.

Jamiat Ahle Hadees
“We strongly condemn Russia’s threat to attack Saudi Arabia”
Jamiat Ahle Hadees – Lahore