FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The folly of a US-led Syria strike
, September 14, 2013
The civil and religious war in Syria, already characterised by the most appalling brutality, plumbed even deeper levels of depravity with the use of poison gas late in August.
At the time of writing, UN inspectors had visited the site of the attack on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, and taken samples back to their base for analysis.
However, the well-placed Foreign Policy magazine alleged that US intelligence services overheard a Syrian defence ministry official making “panicked phone calls to the leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve gas attack” that killed hundreds of people.
This suggests that the attack was not officially sanctioned by the government. However, the gases were allegedly released during an attack on rebel positions by the Syrian 4th Armoured Division, which is under the control of Maher al-Assad, brother of President Bashar al-Assad.
brother of Syria’s president.
Maher al-Assad has a reputation for ferocity, and was reportedly passed over to succeed his father, in favour of his brother who is the current president.
The use of chemical weapons was reportedly a payback for an attempted assassination of President Assad in mid-August.
The rebels in this conflict, who reportedly include 100 Australian Muslims who have joined al-Qaeda affiliates to destroy the Assad regime, have engaged in their own barbarity, which includes torture of captured soldiers and mutilation of their bodies.
After initially foreshadowing immediate reprisals against the Assad regime, the United States, France and Britain have apparently decided to accept the advice of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, and take the matter to the UN Security Council, of which Australia is shortly to hold the presidency.
Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, has joined the general condemnation of the poison-gas attack and blamed the Assad regime, but stopped short of endorsing military reprisals.
There are a number of considerations here. First, the West is unwilling to become involved on the ground in Syria, having sustained heavy casualties in previous interventions in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has publicly announced that America’s military response to the use of chemical weapons will be directed at punishing the perpetrators, not by attempting regime change.
During the early stages of the Iraq war, the Bush administration repeatedly tried to use cruise missiles, over an extended period, to kill Saddam Hussein. They later used the same technique against Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, and the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. These attempts failed.
Early in the Syria conflict, the Obama Administration repeatedly called for regime change.
However, the Assad regime has not collapsed despite two years of fighting, and seems to have increased its hold in recent months, recapturing from the rebels, in bloody fighting, several strategic towns in northern Syria.
The flow of Sunni refugees into neighbouring Lebanon, and Kurds into northern Iraq, indicates that the regime, which is controlled by the minority Alawite sect, is gaining the upper hand, despite a massive influx of weapons and ammunition for the rebels from both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which are Sunni-dominated.
One reason for this is that Assad has tapped into a reservoir of popular support from various minority groups, including the Alawites, Sunnis who don’t want a religious state, Shiites, Christians and others.
Assad has been receiving arms from various sources, including Russia, Iran and Shiite Iraq, as well as battle-hardened reinforcements from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Another concern is that an airborne attack on the regime could well lead to further civilian casualties, creating the impression that the West is also targeting civilians.
A further major problem is that despite universal abhorrence at the use of chemical weapons, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are deeply divided over the conflict, with three (US, Britain and France) supporting the rebels, and two (Russia and China) supporting the Assad regime.
Each of the five permanent members exercises a veto, and therefore the United Nations is unlikely to endorse any military action against Assad.
A US-led attack would therefore aggravate anti-American paranoia in much of the Arab world, potentially provoking terrorist attacks against vulnerable US citizens and businesses in the Middle East.
Supporters of Assad, including the terrorist Hezbollah organisation in Lebanon, are also capable of launching attacks against US military assets in the region.
An attack that weakened Assad could see the war intensifying, and more retaliation by jihadists on the Alawites. If the Assad regime fell, it could leave trans-national jihadists in control of chemical weapons.
What emerges from all this is that Western military intervention in Syria is unlikely to succeed in ending the bloodshed in that unhappy country, and could even make it worse.