Cutting Syria’s Gordian knot no simple feat

Published: August 28, 2013 

An American-led attack on military assets of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, in retaliation for a nerve gas attack on civilians last week, now appears inevitable. Only the timing is in doubt. But it is likely United States President Barack Obama will heed the request of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to let his inspectors, now in the Damascus district of East Ghouta, complete their work.

At least 300 people died and thousands were injured in what is believed to have been an attack on the district with rockets containing sarin nerve gas. This is one of the worst atrocities of Syria’s civil war, which has seen over 100,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands more driven into refugee camps in neighbouring countries during nearly three years of conflict.

While the war, like any other, has provided its own horrors, the images from the gas attack of women and children dying in agony have electrified international outrage. For Obama, the apparent use of poison gas has confronted him with his statement a few months ago that the use of such agents would “cross a red line” demanding international intervention. But there is an active debate within the American political security establishment about what to attack in Syria, and to what end.

The administration is acutely aware of scepticism among its allies and others, stemming from the fabricated evidence used to justify invading Iraq a decade ago to destroy Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpile of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). After Saddam was overthrown and the country thrown into violent chaos from which it has yet to emerge, no WMD stockpiles were found. Among the American military, with its experience of muddled political leadership in the Iraq and Afghan wars, there is concern about the objectives of a Syrian intervention.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America’s top military official, has written a pointed letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin.  Dempsey said “it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.”

It’s an essential point if intervention deposes Assad and brings to power the fractious groups that make up the Syrian insurgency. They run the gamut from secular liberals to fanatic Islamists allied to al-Qaida. Wrote Dempsey: “We could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

The UN inspectors, working under the constant threat of attack by snipers, are trying to gather samples and other evidence that will conclusively establish what happened last week and who was responsible. U.S. intelligence agencies are certain they already know. Agency officials have told several news outlets they intercepted a panicked phone call made by a Syrian Ministry of Defence official to the head of a chemical weapons unit demanding to know what happened.The nature of that evidence begs the question whether the attack was ordered by the Assad regime or was the work of a rogue senior officer. It is this uncertainty that is prompting the Obama administration to let the UN process run its course.

The outcome the administration would like is conclusive proof provided by the UN inspectors, followed by passage through the UN’s Security Council of a resolution such as that put forward by Britain on Wednesday. This resolution would give member states a UN mandate to intervene in Syria with all “necessary measures to protect civilians.” It’s a similar resolution as that used to justify intervention in the Libyan civil war in 2011 ,which led to the overthrow and murder of leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But such a resolution is unlikely to be passed by the UN Security Council where Syria’s still-staunch allies, Russia, and China, which regularly opposes all interventions in the internal troubles of nation states, have vetoes. Obama is already anticipating a veto in the UN and has talked with several leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s 28 member states. It was NATO that intervened in Kosovo in 1999 after the UN failed to give explicit authority. NATO ambassadors met in Brussels on Wednesday, and the alliance’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said later all available information pointed to the Assad regime being responsible for the poison gas attack. He added, “Those responsible must be held accountable.”

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warns of “catastrophic consequences” for Syria and the region if the U.S. and allies intervene. Lavrov is not alone in looking at the way the Syrian civil war has already affected neighbouring countries and the region, and worrying what further chaos might be precipitated by U.S.-led military strikes.

The Syrian civil war has become a proxy for what is perhaps the central contest in the Middle East: the struggle for influence and supremacy between the Shi’ia sect of Islam led by Iran, and the mainstream Sunni sect led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Assad and his regime are from Syria’s Alawite minority, which is a branch of Shi’ia Islam; Iran’s government in Tehran has therefore given Assad much support in arms and military training; Tehran has also helped veteran fighters from the Hezbollah terrorist group in neighbouring Lebanon to join Assad’s forces. This has led to serious outbreaks of violence and assassinations in Lebanon as Syrian rebels encourage their Lebanese allies to attack Hezbollah.

Meanwhile Turkey, which is supporting the largely Sunni Syrian rebels, is playing forced host to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Ankara is also facing a new front in its long-running troubles with its Kurdish minority who live mostly in eastern Turkey, and among whom there is a strong movement for an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds also live across the common borders with Iran, Iraq, and north-eastern Syria, where they have taken advantage of the civil war to carve out what amounts to an autonomous region. This may prove an inspiration to Turkish Kurds.

If Assad feels seriously threatened by international intervention he may lash out at any of these targets plus, of course, Israel.

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe