Upping the ante

The U.S. enters the Syrian quagmire by openly offering military support to rebel forces and keeping up the pressure on the Bashar al Assad government and its allies in the region.

Published : Jul 10, 2013 12:30 IST

A destroyed street in Deir Ezzor on June 27.

A destroyed street in Deir Ezzor on June 27.

EVEN as the Syrian government was preparing to send a high-level delegation to Geneva to participate in the peace talks with the opposition forces, the Barack Obama administration announced that the United States would formally start sending weapons to the already heavily armed rebels who are waging a war against the Syrian state. The U.S.’ decision to side openly with the militant groups came after the White House issued a statement on June 13 claiming that there was “a high certainty” that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons. The conclusions were based on U.S. “intelligence assessments”, but the Obama administration did not produce any serious evidence to substantiate its claims. The Syrian government described the allegations as “a caravan of lies”. The Obama administration claims to have shared its “evidence” on the use of chemical weapons with Russia. Yuri Ushakov, the foreign policy adviser to the Russian President, told the media that what the U.S. presented did not look “convincing” at all.

Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons and a former researcher at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies, was dismissive of the chorus of claims by Washington, London and Paris that chemical weapons were deployed inside Syria by government forces. Zanders pointed out that victims of sarin attacks never survive to tell the tale. Survivors of alleged sarin gas attacks were shown on international television. Zanders, who also headed the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and was the Director of the Geneva-based BioWeapons Prevention Project, said that if sarin had been used the victims would have been dead before they could have sought medical treatment. Medical personnel who came into contact with the victims would have also perished, he noted. Obama’s charge that chemical weapons were used by Syria is similar to the bogus claims made by the George W. Bush administration that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, which it used to justify its invasion of that country in March 2003. Obama has been under considerable pressure from “liberal hawks” within his own Democratic Party, such as Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, and certified militarists, such as John McCain. to militarily intervene in Syria. Clinton went on record as saying that Obama would look like a “total fool” if he “stopped short of dropping a few bombs on Syria”.

Carla del Ponte from the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in May that it was the rebel forces that had used sarin gas inside Syria. The attack, which took place in the government-held part of Aleppo in March, claimed the lives of more than 30 civilians. The Turkish media reported in early June that Al Nusra rebels trained by Qatari Special Forces were caught with sarin gas canisters near the border with Syria. The U.S.’ new ploy on Syria was detailed after the militant groups suffered a significant military setback in the strategically located town of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon. A week before the U.S.’ claim, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that traces of sarin were found in specimens brought to the French authorities allegedly from inside Syria. He blamed the Syrian government for using it against civilians.

Obama had stated earlier in the year that the use of “chemical weapons” by the Syrian army would be a “game changer” that would force the U.S. to intervene militarily. Since then the rebel groups have been trying their best to prove that the Syrian army has resorted to chemical warfare. As things turned out, Obama did not need much convincing anyway. His earlier “red-line” statement was enough incentive for the rebel groups to stage “false flag” operations to drag the U.S. into the Syrian quagmire. From the very beginning of the conflict, Obama’s refrain has been that “Assad must go”. The hard-line position has left Washington with very little space to manoeuvre diplomatically as all signs indicate that President Bashar al Assad is no lame duck and is here to stay. Despite the destruction and the chaos wrought on the country, the majority of Syrians still want him around as a guarantor of their multi-religious and multi-ethnic state. The Syrian authorities are still calling for internationally supervised elections to decide the future of the country. The presidential election in Syria is scheduled to be held in 2014.

The rebels were steadily losing ground when Obama decided to chip in openly with military help. Now the conflict, which has entered its third year, will drag on, causing more civilian casualties and further ravaging of the shattered country. More than 90,000 Syrians have perished in a war manipulated by outside forces.

Until now most of the heavy lifting on behalf of the motley rebel forces has been done by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The U.S., along with Britain and France, has been involved in logistics and training. But now Washington has openly pledged military support to the rebels to achieve its stated goal of regime change. Since the beginning of the last decade, replacing the secular government in Damascus has always been a top priority for Washington. The Arab Spring uprisings, which had led to regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, and military intervention in Libya, provided the new window of opportunity for the U.S. in Syria. The West sought to replicate the Libyan scenario in Syria by first bankrolling protests and then trying to create a “Benghazi”-like situation. But the events in Libya, which led to the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, have made the international community wiser. Attempts by the West to pass a resolution in the U.N. Security Council condemning the Syrian government and imposing a “no-fly zone” over that country have been blocked by Russia and China.

An open military intervention by the West in Syria has been ruled out by most experts and military analysts as such a move could lead to a regional conflagration. “The U.S. does not want an all-out war because then it would seriously jeopardise the security of its closest ally, Israel,” a senior Syrian diplomat said. Instead, the U.S. wants to keep the pressure on Damascus and its allies by increasing the military aid to the rebels and putting U.S. troops and Patriot missiles in Jordan and Turkey. The “Friends of Syria” (a group dominated by the Sunni monarchies and Washington) meeting held in Qatar in the third week of June announced that “practical measures” would be taken to help the opposition forces in the proxy war against Syria. Representatives of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel group currently favoured by the West, have boasted that the U.S. has already supplied them sophisticated weapons, including armour-piercing munitions and anti-aircraft missile launchers.

Reports in the U.S. media have said that operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have been training Syrian rebels secretly in the use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year. Rebel spokespersons have said that the course of the battle will now change. The facts on the ground, however, tell a different story. The Syrian army is on the verge of taking complete control of Aleppo and Homs. Only small sections of the cities continue to have a rebel presence.

Qatari largesse By openly siding with the Sunni Arab monarchies in the region against Syria, the U.S. has widened the growing sectarian schism in the region. As Conn Hallinan, an American foreign policy analyst, has observed, by joining with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, “the world’s last bastions of feudal power”, the U.S. has “essentially become part of the Sunni jehad against Shias in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon”. The U.S. wants to be in control of the Syrian operations. The stepping down of the Qatari Emir, according to observers, is not unconnected with the ongoing events in Syria and the region. According to some Arab officials, the Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamad, was arm-twisted into handing over power to his son, as the U.S. was extremely unhappy with Qatar acting as a benefactor to the various jehadi groups waging war in West Asia and beyond. According to the officials, the U.S. had evidence to show that the former Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, was funded by the Qatari royal family. It is no secret that Al Nusra, which has admitted allegiance to Al Qaeda, is the main beneficiary of Qatari largesse in Syria.

TheNew York Times reported on June 30 that the Qatari Emir, despite warnings from Washington, sent shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles to the rebel groups it favours. The Obama administration fears that these weapons will be used by Al Qaeda against U.S. targets. There are credible reports that Qatar is sending its special forces to Syria as it did in Libya. The special forces instructors hail from Pakistan. Many Pakistani Sunnis have been given citizenship in Gulf countries such as Bahrain and have come to occupy senior positions in the security networks. Qatar has so far spent $3 billion in its efforts to overthrow the Syrian government. Its efforts included massive airlifting of ammunition and fighters from Libya and funding of Al Nusra. A CNN report has said that Al Nusra is the best equipped among the militant groups fighting inside Syria. The U.S. and its Western allies now want to prop up more palatable “moderate” militias inside Syria to do their bidding. In this context, the U.S. is keeping a tighter leash on Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have a particular fondness for Salafi groups.

The republican governments supporting the Syrian rebels are also facing a popular backlash. Turkish media commentators have described Syria as Turkey’s “Vietnam”. The decision of the Turkish government, almost at the very outset of the Syrian civil strife, to allow jehadi forces from all over the world to congregate on its territory to wage a war against its neighbour, has not gone down well with the Turkish people. The refugee crisis in Turkey along the border with Syria has inflamed passions. Two car bomb explosions on May 11 in the border town of Reyhanli killed 52 people and injured more than 140. The mass demonstrations the country witnessed in June are an illustration of the general disenchantment of a sizable section of the Turkish population with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies, especially on Syria.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is also caught in a similar predicament. He had given a green signal to all Egyptians to go and wage “jehad” in Syria after breaking off diplomatic ties with the country in June. Now, on the first anniversary of his rule, the Egyptian people are demonstrating in the streets demanding his immediate resignation. Saudi Arabia had to embark on a massive $132 billion spending programme to calm its restive young population. The Obama administration is, of course, not interested in either dynastic rule or spreading democracy in the Gulf monarchies. In the region, the West has prescribed regime change and democracy only for Syria.

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