Syria

Sarin as part of a strategy?

Print edition : September 20, 2013

In this March 19 photograph provided by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a victim of an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village receives treatment at a hospital in Aleppo. Photo: AP

An image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows bodies of children in a makeshift morgue as the rebels claim they were killed in a toxic attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on August 21. Photo: DAYA Al-DEEN/AFP

Columns of smoke rise after heavy shelling in the Jobar neighbourhood, east of Damascus. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

Angela Kane, the head of the U.N. disarmament agency, who arrived in Damascus on August 26. The U.N. inspectors got free access to the site of the attack following her talks with the government. Photo: KHALED AL-HARIRI/REUTERS

Free Syrian Army fighters with weapons in Jobar. Photo: REUTERS

Syria allows U.N. arms inspectors to the sites of “sarin” attacks confident that they will unmask the falsehoods, but the West insists that Damascus has crossed the “red line”.

Most Syria-watchers are bemused by THE timing of the alleged chemical weapons attack, which, according to the Western media and rebel sources, have killed more than 300 civilians in a distant suburb of Damascus. The area is controlled by the Jabhat al Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, but the majority of those killed were Alawites, the sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. The incident on August 21 happened soon after a United Nations investigation team arrived in the Syrian capital to probe a chemical weapons attack that occurred in Aleppo in March. The Syrian government granted permission to the U.N. team, confident in the belief that its investigations would conclusively prove that the rebel groups were responsible for the Aleppo attack. U.N. officials such as Carla del Ponte, war crimes investigator and leading member of the U.N. independent commission of inquiry on Syria, put the blame on the armed groups fighting against the government. She said there was “strong, concrete” evidence that sarin gas had been used by the Western-backed forces, in the poison gas attack earlier in the year.

The Syrian government has given the arms inspectors free access to the site of the latest chemical attack, following talks between Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and the head of the U.N. disarmament agency, Angela Kane, who reached the country on August 24. “The Foreign Minister affirmed Syria’s desire to cooperate with the team of inspectors to unmask the falsehoods of the allegations by terrorist groups that Syrian forces used chemical weapons,” said a statement from the Foreign Ministry. The U.N. inspectors have already started their “on the ground investigations” in the affected areas. American officials were, however, quick to dismiss the Syrian government’s gesture, saying that the offer was “too late to be credible” and that Washington was all but certain that the government had gassed its own people. There were some initial fears in Damascus that the West would use permissions granted to the international inquiry commissions to set precedents as they did in the case of Iraq.

A similar ploy was employed by the West in Iraq. The weapons inspectors working under a U.N. mandate helped the United States to propagate the falsehood that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had huge quantities of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Syrian officials have been repeatedly emphasising that the goal of the armed opposition is to implicate the Syrian government in heinous acts of terror to force the West to intervene militarily. They also point to the fact that the fighters responsible for the chemical attack in Aleppo targeted more than 50 witnesses for assassination so that they would not be able to provide evidence to the U.N. team. This happened after the Syrian government agreed on August 14 to allow the U.N. commission to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in three different sites. Syrian government officials have repeatedly said that they never have and never would use chemical weapons on their own people.

The government’s assertion of its innocence has not stopped the West from once again insisting that it has crossed the “red line”. The U.S., in recent history, has crossed many more serious red lines, including the indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese civilians using napalm. The survivors of those attacks have even been denied compensation.

There were loud calls for foreign military intervention in Syria after the alleged chemical attack near Damascus. The calls come at a time when the Syrian rebel forces are in retreat and in total disarray. Many of the rebel groups, which number more than a hundred, are now more interested in fighting among themselves.

“Logically, it would make very little sense for the Syrian government to employ chemical agents at such a time, particularly given the relative close proximity of the targeted towns [to the U.N. team],” Charles Lister, a security analyst with Jane’s Defence Weekly, observed. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the missile canisters, which carried the sarin gas targeting the suburb in eastern Damascus, were launched by rebel forces. Syrian officials had earlier seized chemical weapon supplies in areas they had recaptured from the rebels. Syrian television showed footage of the chemical weapons they unearthed from a secret tunnel built by the rebels in Jobar, the suburb where the alleged attack happened. “Moscow believes it is important to carry out an objective and professional investigation. It looks like an attempt to create a pretext for the U.N. Security Council to side with the opponents of Assad’s regime and undermine the Geneva II talks,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Many toxicology experts even doubt that sarin was used. Pictures aired on television show doctors and others treating the victims without basic protective clothing. Any contact with sarin is known to be lethal. The Russian Foreign Office spokesman added that the incident was a “provocation planned in advance”. The device that carried the poison gas canister was allegedly a home-made one and did not have the markings of munitions supplied by either Russia or Iran to the Syrian army.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Syrian government had reassured Tehran that it would allow the U.N. investigating team to inquire into the incident. Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, while strongly condemning the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, reminded the international community that his country, too, was subjected to chemical weapons attack in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. At that time, the West and the Gulf monarchies were supporting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Chemical strikes on civilian areas had killed thousands of Iranians. “The provocative words of American officials or the sending of warships will not help solve the problem in any way, but will make the situation more dangerous in the region,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The rebels’ fear that the U.N. investigating team would expose their complicity in the use of poison gas in Aleppo could have been another motivating factor for the latest accusations against the government forces. U.S. President Barack Obama convened an emergency meeting with his top aides to consider various military options against Syria. He was quick to describe the alleged chemical attack “as a big event of grave concern”, without investigating the facts surrounding the case. He has already ordered warships into the region to threaten Syria. Obama is under pressure from professional hawks in the political establishment to move militarily against Syria.

He seems to be veering towards the advice given by Robert Hunter, a former U.S. Ambassador, “to keep his nerve and continue resisting attempts to drag the U.S. even more deeply into Syria”. Hunter suggested that it would be better for the President to be “heartless” rather than “mindless” on Syria. More than a 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the U.S.-instigated war on Syria and more than five million Syrians rendered homeless. A recent opinion poll showed that 62 per cent of Americans are opposed to a war against Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel said that the Pentagon was waiting for orders from the White House to take appropriate action against Syria. “President Obama has asked the Defence Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that and we are prepared to exercise whatever option —if he decides to employ one of those options,” the Defence Secretary told the media in Kuala Lumpur. In late August, the U.S. dispatched its fourth warship armed with cruise missiles to the Mediterranean.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was even more forthright when he called for “a reaction of military force” by the international community. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutogulu, not to be outdone, said Syria had crossed “all red lines”. Turkey has provided logistic and military support to Al Qaeda-affiliated gangs operating inside Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the earliest votaries of the imposition of a “no-fly zone” over Syria. It has been reported that 400 tonnes of sophisticated weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, were supplied to the rebels through the Turkish province of Hatay in the last week of August. The arms, according to spokesmen for the rebels, were paid for by their supporters in the Gulf countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was more to the point when he said the attack on Syria would be a blow against Iran. “Syria has become Iran’s testing ground, and Iran is closely watching whether and how the world would respond,” he said. Netanyahu boasted that “our fingers are on the trigger” and demanded that “chemical weapons be taken out of Syria”. British tabloid papers have predicted that the Western bombing campaign on Syria will begin soon. The U.S. and its proxies in the region, Jordan and Israel, are, meanwhile, busy training hand-picked fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) along the Syrian border with Jordan, according to reports in the Western media. Analysts say that this is part of the Western strategy to carve out a buffer zone where rebel Syrian forces favoured by Washington can be based. Jordan announced in the last week of August that it was hosting a meeting of top military commanders from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries and the West’s proxies. The Obama administration is sending General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the meeting.

The events in Syria also helped remove the focus from the dubious role of the West in Egypt and shift international attention once again to Syria. The continued Western support to the Syrian opposition, according to U.S. officials, has converted Syria “into the biggest haven” for jehadist fighters. The Jabhat al Nusra, openly affiliated to Al Qaeda, is the biggest and best organised fighting group. It has been in the forefront of suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, and has even targeted Western mediapersons. Yet, there are growing calls from many Western leaders for military intervention. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi has warned the U.S. against any open military intervention. “The basic repercussion would be a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but West Asia,” he said. Iran and the Hizbollah will definitely not be idle bystanders if the U.S. launches a military attack on Syria.

Russian Foreign Ministry officials warned that any military action by the West would be a “tragic mistake”.

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