As Barack Obama considers the US-led response to the gas attack in Syria, the nuances of that response are getting more, not less difficult. How do you concoct a response – an air strike – that will significantly hurt the Assad regime, but without tipping the military balance towards the rebels, whose strongest military elements are virulently anti-American and anti-Western?
For all the outraged rhetoric being directed against the Assad regime, the last thing that Washington wants right now is to cause the regime to topple, thus leaving the US and other countries with the hideous task of nation building – with and against a Syrian opposition that is currently fragmented across an estimated 1,000 different militia, none of whom have so far shown any ability or interest in providing the territories they currently occupy with the most basic of human services. For these reasons, we’re talking about a token, symbolic bombing response in the coming days. One that expresses the world’s displeasure, but which –cross fingers – doesn’t change anything significant on the ground.
The piece of finely tuned political theatre we are about to witness over the coming days will not get any easier if the US chooses to wait waits until the UN inspectors have finished their work. Unlike Iraq in 2003 – where the UN inspection was crucial to whether the threat from WMD existed at all – there is no doubt this time that an atrocity that breaches international norms has taken place. Waiting for a UN mandate on the form of the response may be desirable on paper, but the difficulty of deciding on the form of that response will be made no easier by waiting.
It would be helpful – and would justify the wait – if the UN inspectors could go beyond establishing that a gas attack had occurred, and cpuld also apportion responsibility for who had carried it out. That’s very unlikely. In the last 24 hours, US Secretary of State John Kerry has been citing the Medecin Sans Frontiers report from Damascus as confirmation of Assad’s guilt, but the report is in fact, not exactly forthright on this key point:
“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr. Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”
At this point, the case against the Assad regime is a circumstantial one, but plausible enough, despite some misgivings. As I said in yesterday’s column, the rebels had a strong motive that such an attack should take place – given that this alone would trigger the kind of military intervention it has been clamouring for the West to provide for well over a year. For the same reason, the Assad regime had a very strong motive not to carry out such an attack, lest that play into the rebels’ hands and benefit them militarily and diplomatically. With that reality in mind, Russia has rallied to,Assad’s defence, and suggested that the rebels could have been responsible for an attack carried out in an area they hold.
On balance though, Middle East expert Professor Juan Cole – who has been critical before of US policy in the Middle East – believes that the more likely culprit is the Assad regime.
I don’t find the ‘false flag’ narrative about the gas attack put forward by the Russians plausible. Rebel forces are not disciplined enough to be sure of being able to plot and carry out a mass murder of the families that have been sheltering them in East and West Ghouta and to keep it secret. How could they have been sure no one among them would get cold feet and blow the whistle? Killing hundreds of women and children from your own clans would be objectionable to at least some in any group of fighters. The fighters in Rif Dimashq are not the hardened Jabhat al-Nusra types. Besides, capturing and deploying rocket systems tipped with poison gas is not so easy; even just operating them takes training.
Of course, this still leaves some room for doubt. Operatives from the likes of the fundamentalist Jabhat al-Nusra with the necessary expertise and ruthlessness could have deployed to this area and carried out such an operation precisely because it is outside their northern stronghold and where their clan allegiances would be irrelevant. But the more plausible culprit is the Assad regime – desperate enough to defend a symbolic target like Damascus that it was prepared to risk the international condemnation that (perhaps) it has already factored in as being more symbolic than substantial.
On Syria Comment, Joshua Landis has provided a string of reasons against military intervention on the ground, even if this – ultimately – is the only way to protect the Syrian people from revenge killings and further atrocities. The reasons include the inability of the US and the West to sustain the military, financial and strategic costs of the nation building responsibilities that would inevitably follow. Intervention, he points out, would result in the US and the West fighting the jihadis among the opposition, as well as the regime forces. Tipping the balance in favour of the rebels would, he argues, create more suffering than it would alleviate. Thus the West is in the strange opposition of needing the survival of the very same Assad regime that it is seeking to punish for the gas attack. Here’s part of the Landis argument –
Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. The government continues to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians with salaries & retirement benefits. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can get worse.
Most militias are drawn from the poorer, rural districts of Syria. Most wealth is concentrated in the city centers that remain integral (such as Damascus, Lattakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Hama, etc.), which have survived largely unscathed in this conflict, and have not opted to continue the struggle. If the militias take these cities, there will be widespread looting and lawlessness which will threaten many more civilians who have managed to escape the worst until now.
Many in these urban centers have managed to continue leading fairly stable lives up to the present; despite the tremendous level of destruction seen so far, many areas are still a long way from the bottom. It would be preferable to avoid a Somalia-like scenario in the remaining cities and provinces.
It’s not at all clear that U.S. intervention can improve the economic or security situation for Syrians.
Entering the conflict would mean America battling on multiple fronts, not only against the regime: The U.S. has declared itself at war with al-Qaida. If we were to intervene, we would have to enter a new front against the most powerful and effective Syrian opposition militias, in addition to the war against Assad. Our forces would be targeted by extremists and more radically-Islamist militias. We would be fighting a multi-front war.
The potential for ethnic cleansing and revenge killings is high: The different ethno-sectarian communities and socio-economic classes are renegotiating the dynamics of their relationship inside Syria. For the last 50 years, Alawites have monopolized the ramparts of power in Syria. They have allied themselves with other minorities and important segments of the Sunni majority, and the regime has preserved its power through a careful sectarian strategy. The rebellion, led primarily by Sunni Arabs of the countryside, aims to supplant the Alawite hold on power. The US cannot adjudicate the new balance of power that will emerge in Syria. It is not prudent to dramatically tip the balance of power in such a supercharged environment of sectarian hatred and class warfare.
Thus, the likelihood is an almost entirely symbolic action that Australia and – it seems – New Zealand –are being invited to join. Bombing a few Syrian cities will achieve nothing. Bombing a facility that makes chemical weapons would be ideal, but that assumes such a building can be readily detected and taken out. Wisely or not, the task the West has assumed is one where it is seeking to weaken Assad – and thereby weaken its ally, Iran, which is the real target of Israel and the conservative Sunni regimes in the region – but not weaken him to an extent where we help to replace Assad with something very likely to be worse. It is a tricky decision facing Obama. This time, even the Pentagon doesn’t want to get very involved.