Aggression against Syria

Syrian quagmire

Print edition : May 12, 2017

A doctor treating a child in a makeshift hospital following a suspected chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province of Syria on April 4. This photograph was provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Centre, which has been authenticated on the basis of its contents and other AP reporting. Photo: AP

This satellite image released by the U.S. Department of Defence shows a damage assessment image of Shayrat airbase in Syria, after the U.S. blasted it with a barrage of Tomahawk missile strikes on April 7. Photo: DigitalGlobe/U.S. Department of Defence via AP

The Syrians who were injured in a suicide car bombing that targeted buses carrying evacuees from besieged government-held towns in a tent on the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib province on April 17. Photo: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (centre) with his counterparts from Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif (right), and Syria, Walid Muallem, after their talks in Moscow on April 14. Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP

The U.S. military aggression against Syria following an as-yet-unexplained chemical attack in that country’s Idlib province resulted in a caution from Russian President Vladimir Putin against more such “false flag” incidents that put the blame on the official authorities, and the evolution of a “joint procedure” by Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the situation.

THE sudden reversal of the Trump administration’s policy on Syria just two days after an alleged chemical explosion in the Jabhat al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate)-controflled town of Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province on April 4 did not come as a surprise to many given Donald Trump’s flip-flops on other major issues since he assumed office. More than 70 civilians, some of them children, were reportedly killed in the attack by the Syrian Air Force on Khan Sheikhoun. Idlib is described as “the heartland of Jabhat al-Nusra”. The Syrian Army was making significant advances there against the rebels when the “chemical attack” happened. The Syrian government did not deny that its air force had launched an attack on extremists in the town. The Syrian military spokesman said at the outset that its planes had targeted a building, which had then exploded, letting out a dark plume of smoke.

The government in Damascus alleges that it was a building where the rebels had stored chemical weapons. The United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, speaking soon after the alleged chemical attack, said his organisation had not received “any official or reliable confirmation of what took place or who was responsible” for the incident. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, said there was “no evidence at the moment” to pinpoint or apportion blame. The U.N. said it would conduct an inquiry at the earliest.

This did not stop President Trump from rushing to judgement. Trump said he was moved by the pictures of “beautiful little babies” who were allegedly the victims of the chemical attack. He wasted no time in dispatching 59 Tomahawk missiles towards a Syrian airbase in Shayrat, located in the province of Homs. However, Trump and the Western media were totally unmoved after the massacre of 120 people, including 80 children, in the same province a week after the incident in Khan Sheikhoun. Under a deal between the Syrian government and the rebels in the area, the children and their families who had been living under siege for years were being evacuated from a village.

There was not a word of sympathy from the White House for the bereaved parents. Not a single bullet was fired in retaliation by the United States-led alliance, which is allegedly fighting against Al Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State or ISIS). There was no condemnation from Western capitals either. This was in stark contrast to the reaction of the West after the April 4 incident. The children who died in the terror attack in the second week of April belonged to the Shia community, considered apostate by al-Nusra and Daesh. Pope Francis was among the world leaders who spoke out against the targeting of children. He described it as “a vile attack” on fleeing refugees and said his heart “goes out for beloved and martyred Syria”.

When President Barack Obama was seemingly on the brink of ordering an attack on Syria in 2013 for crossing his so-called “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, Trump had cautioned him not to get involved militarily. He tweeted: “Do Not Attack Syria. If You Do Very bad things will happen.” Now sitting in the White House, Trump claims that his views on both Syria and President Bashar al-Assad have undergone a dramatic change. Chinese President Xi Jinping was a guest of the U.S. President at the Trump estate in Florida when the attack took place. Trump chose to break the news of the launch of cruise missiles into Syria casually to his Chinese counterpart over dinner. The important Trump-Xi summit was relegated to the background. It was a significant loss of face for China, which is a strong ally of the Syrian government. Trump did not even show the diplomatic courtesy of postponing the attack by a day until the Chinese President left the U.S. The attack on Syria also happened when peace talks on Syria were about to start in Geneva and the Syrian Army was making significant advances.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to the media after the American missile attack on Syria, said “that there was no doubt in our mind” that it was the government of Bashar al-Assad that was responsible for the chemical attack. The Russian government had pointed out at the outset that the Syrian government had no chemical weapons in its arsenal, as it had agreed to destroy its cache following an agreement brokered by Russia and done under U.N. supervision three years ago. Russian intelligence was firmly of the view that the explosion was caused by chemical weapons that the rebels had stored in a warehouse. There have been previous documented incidents of al-Nusra and Daesh using prohibited chemical weapons. The U.N. has recorded statements from Syrian civilians who were eyewitnesses to earlier attempts by the rebels to make the West believe that the Syrian government had used chlorine gas.

More ‘provocations’ likely: Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently that he had information that the West was planning many more “false flag” incidents in Syria. “We have information from different sources that these provocations—I cannot call them otherwise—are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus where there are plans to throw some substances and accuse the official Syrian authorities,” Putin said. Many intelligence professionals in the U.S. and the region are of the view that it was a “false flag” incident staged by the rebels to give the U.S. a pretext to move into Syria militarily.

“Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us what happened. There was no ‘Syrian chemical weapon attack’. Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an Al Qaeda in Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died—this is what the Russians and the Syrians have been saying and, more important, what they appear to believe, happened,” said a statement from 20 former members of the United States intelligence community known as the Steering Group of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Before ordering the missile strike, the Trump administration did not bother to consult the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which had supervised the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stock.

The Russian President has highlighted the hypocrisy of the West on the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Putin said the West had consistently ignored the Syrian government’s request to probe allegations of chemical weapons use by the rebels. “The only time the international community responded was this time. I think that we can figure out what is going on by just using a little bit of common sense. The Syrian Army was winning the war. In some places, they had the rebels completely surrounded. For them [the Syrian government] to throw it all away and give their trump card to people who are calling for regime change is, frankly, a crock of shit,” the Russian President told the media. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was even more forthright about President Trump and his policies. “The mist of pre-election fog has melted away,” he commented on his Facebook page. “Instead of the mass circulated narrative of a joint fight against the our main enemy, the ISIS, The Trump administration has demonstrated that it will be fiercely fighting the legitimate government of Syria.”

Agreement suspended

After the U.S. missile attack, Russia further solidified its political and military relations with the Syrian government. The Russian Defence Ministry took immediate steps to strengthen Syria’s air defence, sent a naval frigate to the country and announced that it was suspending an agreement with the U.S. to coordinate activity over Syrian airspace. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement lauding the Syrian government’s “fierce battle” against “international terrorism”. Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for the Russian President, said the U.S. action in Syria dealt a “significant blow” to U.S.-Russian ties. The Syrian Army, Peskov affirmed, had no chemical weapons at its disposal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an independent inquiry into the allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. “If our U.S. colleagues and some European nations believe that their version is right, they have no reason to fear the creation of such an independent group,” Lavrov said after a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Iran and Syria, Javad Zarif and Walid Muallem respectively, in Moscow. The three Ministers also discussed the threat posed by the increased concentration of U.S. troops along Syria’s borders with Jordan. Lavrov said the three countries had evolved a “joint procedure” to confront aggression.

President Assad, in a recent interview, stressed that Syria did not have chemical weapons any more. He said that even if the Syrian government had chemical weapons in its possession, it would never have used them against its own people. He said the only information about what happened in Khan Sheikhoun was the version put out by Al Qaeda’s information department, alleging the use of chemical weapons. Assad said the West was “hand in glove with the terrorists”. According to the Syrian President, the West “fabricated the whole story to create a pretext for the attack”. He was particularly scathing about the allegations that the deadly sarin gas was used in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. He said that even the “fabricated videos” showed rescuers helping victims of the attack without wearing gloves or masks. “If there was sarin, they would have been affected right away,” Assad noted. Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leading analyst of military technology, said that for sarin gas to be effective it had to be launched from the ground and not dropped from the air. The accusation against the Syrian government was that its planes had dropped the deadly chemical.

The Syrian President pointed out that the large-scale U.S. missile attack was carried out within 48 hours of the incident “with no concrete evidence about anything” and based on “allegations and propaganda”. President Assad said the very fact that the West claimed that Daesh did not have chemical weapons meant that it was not serious about fighting terrorism. The action of the U.S. government against Syria, Assad said, showed that the “deep state” there, comprising military hawks, neocons and Wall Street, remained in control. “Trump wanted to be a leader, but every President there, if he wants to be a real leader, will have to eat his words later, swallow his pride, if he has pride at all, and make a 180 degree U-turn, otherwise he would pay the price politically,” Assad said in his interview.

The U.S., as it is, bears much of the responsibility for the situation in Syria and the wider region. The seven million refugees and a nation in tatters is a legacy of its brazen interference in the internal affairs of Syria. In its frenetic quest for regime change in Damascus, the West initially propped up a rebel Syrian army, and when that venture failed, armed, trained and subsidised a crazed army of jehadists.

“Actually, during the last six years, the U.S. was directly involved in supporting terrorists everywhere in Syria, including al-Nusra and ISIS, including all the like-minded factions in Syria,” Assad said. According to the Syrian President, the previous Obama administration had launched an even more serious attack on his country. He was referring to the U.S. Air Force attack on a Syrian military base in Deir Ezzor late last year that resulted in the death of more than 30 soldiers. Daesh fighters occupied the base, but they and the U.S. could not succeed in the larger game plan of capturing Deir Ezzor city or prevent the liberation of Aleppo.

As the Bolivian envoy to the U.N., Sacha Llorenti, observed in a speech at a Security Council meeting specifically called to discuss the U.S. act of aggression against Syria, the Americans had once again abrogated to themselves the role of “investigators, attorneys, judges and executioners”. He compared the speech of Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., to that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq. Bolivia currently holds a non-permanent seat at the Security Council. Llorenti, holding an enlarged picture of Powell making his weapons of mass destruction in Iraq speech, demanded that the U.S. had to be brought to account for the unprovoked attack on Syria, noting the history of U.S. imperialist interventions worldwide, including Latin America.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations issued a statement condemning the military action in Syria, which was not authorised by the U.N. The statement also called for the respect of international law, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

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