War drums silenced

Print edition : November 01, 2013

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House in Washington on September 30. Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

A Free Syrian Army fighter throws a crude bomb towards the Justice Palace, which is controlled by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo on October 4. Photo: REUTERS

Members of the Jund al-Rahman Brigade position a cannon on the front lines of Syria's north-eastern city of Deir Ezzor on October 2. Photo: AHMAD ABOUD/AFP

President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in Damascus. Photo: sana/REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: ALEXEI NIKOLSKYAFP

The Obama administration does a U-turn on Syria following resistance from Congress and diplomatic moves by President Valdimir Putin.

DOMESTIC and international public opinion finally forced American President Barack Obama to shelve, at least for the time being, plans to launch a military assault on Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deft diplomatic moves played an important part in stopping the breakout of another war in West Asia. Until the beginning of September, Obama had been insisting that the United States was justified in launching Cruise missiles on Syria, despite the United Nations rejecting a unilateral military action.

The first serious setback for Obama in his foolhardy ambition to find a military solution to the Syrian conflict was delivered by the British Parliament in August when it voted against the United Kingdom’s participation in the proposed war. Apparently unfazed, Obama said that the British rejection would not influence his decision. French President Francois Hollande, battling dismal domestic political ratings, became an enthusiastic drum-beater for Western military intervention in Syria and was busy prodding his American counterpart to start military action forthwith. Public opinion in France, like in the U.S., was overwhelmingly against a military solution. But Hollande’s eagerness to launch a military attack was undermined by Obama’s late decision to get congressional approval for his plan. Obama was finding it increasingly difficult to field accusations that the U.S. Air Force was going to be used to assist Al Qaeda and assorted Islamic groupings that were waging a war against the secular Syrian state. With the mood in Congress generally against a new military adventure in West Asia, Obama was in search of a face-saver to get over his “red line” fiasco. He had determined that the Syrian government had crossed the so-called “red line” he had set by using chemical weapons on its own people. His Secretary of State John Kerry went ballistic even comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler. He also made comparisons with Munich and the Second World War. (The reference was to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement of Hitler” after his annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, which emboldened Hitler to trigger the Second World War.)

The Syrian government has vehemently denied that it ever used chemical weapons and has instead blamed the rebel forces for the attack. President Assad told the German weekly Der Spiegel, in the second week of October that government forces did not use chemical weapons. He expressed serious doubts about the U.N. report on the August 21 chemical attack. “No one can say with any certainty that rockets were used,” he told the magazine. The Russian government has said that Damascus had provided documentary evidence to prove that the chemical attack was the handiwork of the rebel forces.

Anyway, as many analysts and commentators have noted, it did not make sense for the Syrian leadership to order a chemical attack on a civilian area when a U.N. fact-finding mission was in Damascus to investigate an earlier chemical attack in Aleppo that was widely blamed on the opposition fighters. A report in World Net Daily, a right-wing American website on September 11, quoted classified U.S. documents in which “the U.S. military confirms that sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria”. The Syrian government was not unaware that using chemical weapons was a sure-fire provocation for Western military intervention.

The Obama administration’s turnaround on Syria was apparently facilitated by a remark by John Kerry to the effect that the only way U.S. military action could be avoided was to get Syrian government to hand over “every single bit” of its chemical weapons to the international community. The Russian government was quick to sense a diplomatic opportunity and managed to convince the Syrian government to announce that it was willing to give up its chemical weapons inventory under international supervision. Putin’s article in The New York Times in the same week debunked Obama’s claim that the U.S. was exempted from international law because of its alleged “exceptionalism”. Putin underlined the impropriety of one country waging war against another except in self-defence or with the authorisation of the U.N. Security Council.

The Obama administration, given the ground realities on Syria, decided to play ball and agreed with the Russian proposal. The two countries agreed in Geneva in the second week of September on “a joint determination to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons programme in the soonest and safest manner”. On September 27, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution requiring Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons. Russia also saw to it that the resolution did not contain any threat of military action. The deadline for the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is the middle of 2014. The Syrian government has warned that international inspectors going around the country could be harmed by the rebel groups. The rebels could then blame the government for any untoward incident that might happen. “We’re very transparent. The experts can go to every site. They are going to have all the data from our government,” Assad told Der Spiegel.

Setback for Israel

The hopes of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel of prodding the U.S. into launching military action have ended with that statement, at least for the time being. Not only that, the move has helped the Obama administration ease tensions with the newly elected government in Iran. Obama and President Hassan Rouhani exchanged warm messages on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. Both these developments have been a setback for Israel and its de facto Muslim allies in the region. It was Israel which provided the “proof” of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, first in April and then in August.

Silvan Shalom, a senior Israeli Minister, reflecting the general mood in his government, observed recently that if Washington found “it difficult to do anything against little Syria, then certainly it is not possible against big Iran”. Not only that. Questions about Israel’s undeclared stockpile of chemical and nuclear weapons are now becoming louder. Syria has agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Israel signed the CWC in 1993 but refuses to ratify the agreement and countenance the idea of a nuclear weapons-free West Asia.

The Syrian government, like the other states in the region, has been saying that its chemical weapons arsenals are the only deterrent it has against the nuclear might of Israel. Russian officials have been saying that Israel should follow Syria’s example and ratify the CWC. According to an article in the September issue of Foreign Policy, a 1983 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report suggested that Israel was developing a nerve agent at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert. The CIA document said that Israel “undertook a programme of chemical warfare preparation in both offensive and protective areas”.

Both Washington and Moscow have said that the recent breakthrough will help kick-start the Geneva 11 conference on Syria. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. Special Envoy to Syria, said that the decision of the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons was “a necessary step” for the convening of the Geneva 11 conference.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that there is a good possibility of the conference being held in October. The Syrian government has been eager for political talks to start in order to end the cycle of bloodletting that has been going on for three years now. The disunited rebel forces, aided and abetted by their regional supporters, have been reluctant to enter into formal negotiations. They were waiting for Western military strikes to put them in a militarily advantageous position. Since the beginning of the year, they have been put on the back foot by the Syrian Army. Syrian diplomats have said that they are willing to talk to the legitimate opposition, not terrorist groups such as al Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Ahrar al Sham. After the refusal of the U.S. to act as their “air force”, the rebel groups, including many that were painted as moderate by the Western media, have ganged up and rejected dialogue as the means to end the bloodshed.

On September 24, under the umbrella of a new “Islamic Alliance”, 11 rebel groups that have been doing most of the fighting inside Syria rejected the U.S.- backed “National Coalition” and its military arm, the Supreme Military Council (SMC). John Kerry had recently claimed that only 15 to 20 per cent of the rebel fighters were the “bad guys”. According to Western media reports, the so-called “bad guys” were now in control of many towns in the northern and eastern parts of Syria, especially along its border with Iraq. In the Damascus area, 50 rebel groups have formed the Jaish al Islam army, dominated by the Saudi Arabia-backed Lawa al Islam. The Free Syrian Army, backed by the West, has become even more of a paper tiger as the jehadist, Salafist and Takfiri groups now dominate the armed opposition to the government. Al Qaeda, in short, is effectively calling the shots, with the West playing a supporting role.

“It seems that the West has more confidence in Al Qaeda than me,” Assad told Der Spiegel. Zahran Alloush, the Jaish al Islam leader, told the al Jazeera network that the aim of the group was to resurrect the Umayyad Empire with Damascus as it capital and purge the Shiites, Allawites and other minorities from the land. Assad reiterated that he was willing to talk to the legitimate opposition but not with militant groups, saying that “by definition a legitimate opposition does not have an army”.