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In Focus: Why does the US want to attack Syria?

Updated Dec 30, 2013 01:41pm

The United States is at war once again and in its favorite battleground, the Middle East. This is despite the fact that they are facing a lot of trouble in withdrawing from Afghanistan in a respectable manner after waging a long war set off in 2001. Their performance in Iraq, where they initiated another war in 2003, has not been something that they could be proud of either. So, why then, is a country facing grave economic crises at home hell bent on inviting more trouble abroad?

There are many explanations circulating in the mainstream and social media. I have here tried to summarise these for you and highlight the ones I find the most plausible.

The humanitarian case:

The US wants to free the Syrian people from a tyrannical regime.

Please, don't laugh. There is whole class of liberal interventionists who think that way and they are entitled to their views. They believe that the US and its European allies have selflessly rendered priceless services to humanity earlier too.

But, I think that the script writers for the western powers have lately been suffering from writer's block and no one wants to watch the same old soap anymore. The important indications are - One, UK parliament has voted down their country's support to the new war. Two, President Obama too understands that the act is highly unpopular, and is thus aiming to legitimise it by seeking prior approval from Congress.

Protests against the Syrian government had started in 2011 and were initially seen as a logical extension of what was termed, the Arab Spring that resulted in regime changes in many countries. But unlike elsewhere, it lingered on in Syria and converted into a protracted and bloody civil war. Humanitarian workers and human rights organisations from around the world have been regularly reporting human rights violations being committed by all parties to the conflict.

The Syria chapter of the Human Rights Watch Report 2013 quotes opposition sources claiming that around 35,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict from end 2011 to November 2012. Most media organisations now quote 100,000 as the total toll of the conflict. And if you have the heart, you may read the CNN report about a ghastly video showing a Syrian rebel eating the heart of a government soldier.

They say everything is fair in war. The Geneva Convention, however, disagrees and has set out some red lines. One such is the use of chemical weapons and the US believes that Syria has just crossed that line. There is conclusive evidence that chemical weapons have recently been used in Syria killing hundreds of civilians. This statement of the international medical humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was the first report of mass killing by chemical weapons near Damascus on 21 August.

But there is nothing that could substantiate that the chemical weapons have been used by government forces. In fact, there are reports that point towards the other side, accusing the rebels of using this, the meanest of weapons. Read this BBC report that quoted a leading member of the the UN Commission of Inquiry telling Swiss TV in May 2013, that is much before the recent use of the killer gas,

I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got ... they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition.

And if you are interested in a full-fledged conspiracy theory about how the chemical weapons incident has been set up, you will love this.

The UK parliament voted on the question of whether or not to support the US attack on Syria, while the United Nations team mandated to ascertain facts about whether the chemical weapon incident was still in Syria. The parliamentarians decided to instead rely on YouTube evidence and experts' interpretations of what could be seen in those videos. The United States officials have in fact designated the Syrian government as the culprit even before the UN team arrived in Syria. The US is in hurry and forcing its way.

Even if the Syrian government did use the killer gas against its civilians, shall it be the US who should lead the punishing act? There are many who argue that the US has no moral standing to lead this 'crusade'. It has been itself complicit in many such incidents in the recent past and the killing of a few hundred civilians in this region has not always invoked similar responses from it. The International Crisis Group in its statement on Syria, on 1st September 2013, questions these grounds and argues that the proposed military action will solve nothing.

The sectarian case:

The Saudis want to see an end to the Alawite Shia regime in Syria.

Syria is ruled by the Assad family since the 1970s, they belong to a Shia Islam sect known as the Alawites. The country itself was carved out of the Ottoman Empire, like most others in the Middle East and North Africa, when it fell to the European forces in World War I. The new 'national' boundaries delineated by the world powers cut across sectarian and tribal boundaries and that complicated the power struggles in the countries to a great extent. Here is a map of the region showing areas inhabited by various sects of Islam.

Syria's President Hafez al-Asad (sitting on the right side) signing the Federation of Arab Republics in Benghazi, Libya, on April 18, 1971 with President Anwar al-Sadat (sitting left) of Egypt and Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya (sitting in the centre). The agreement never materialised into a federal union between the three Arab states. -Source: The Online Museum of Syrian History
Syria's President Hafez al-Asad (sitting on the right side) signing the Federation of Arab Republics in Benghazi, Libya, on April 18, 1971 with President Anwar al-Sadat (sitting left) of Egypt and Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya (sitting in the centre). The agreement never materialised into a federal union between the three Arab states. -Source: The Online Museum of Syrian History

Fareed Zakaria, the renowned American journalist who is associated with Time magazine, Washington Post and CNN thinks that the region is in the middle of a power readjustment process. He tells us that in the post-Colonial arrangement of three Middle Eastern states, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, ended up being ruled by the minority communities of these countries, that are, by Sunni, Shia and Christians respectively and that the majority communities were bound to retaliate. He believes that a rebalancing of power has already taken place in Iraq, courtesy of the US, and Lebanon and it is now Syria's turn.

Video | Listen to him here:

In this video recorded in June 2013, Fareed advised the US to not meddle with Syrian affairs. He points out that the dislodging of minority rulers is typically followed by the majority exacting revenge on them, and in the third phase internecine fighting erupts among the various groups of majority communities. He estimates that the civil war in Syria is bound to continue for years, if not decades, before the country finds a new balance and the US should not afford any involvement in such a taxing and possibly futile activity. But the sensible advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Why would the US be interested in dislodging a minority ruler? May be it actually hates Shias. But in neighboring Iraq, which the US attacked and literally occupied to remove a ruler it had started hating, it ended up having a government of the majority Shia community and it doesn't feel threatened by it. Neither has this 'Shia' government united with its sect-fellow, the neighboring Iran, which is seen by the West as a serious security threat.

If the US has no axe to grind against Shias, then maybe it wants to please its most trusted ally in the region - the Wahabi Saudis - whose grudge against Shias is no secret. The majority Sunnis of Syria are, however, not Wahabi and the country shares its northern boundaries with Turkey which is also opposing the government forces. So if and when Assad falls, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey could vie for influence in the post-Alawite Syria.

In this Thursday, Oct 26, 2011 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, stands next to Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, right, and Chief of Staff Gen. Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij, left, during a ceremony to mark the 38th anniversary of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in Damascus, Syria. -AP File Photo
In this Thursday, Oct 26, 2011 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, stands next to Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, right, and Chief of Staff Gen. Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij, left, during a ceremony to mark the 38th anniversary of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in Damascus, Syria. -AP File Photo

There is little doubt that the Saudis will welcome and rejoice the end of the Alawites rule but they cannot expect a lucrative bounty at the end of this war. Saudi Arabia cannot expect a subservient, client state taking over Syria. They stand to gain little if considered strictly in sectarian terms or in other words, their possible gains will be mainly psychological which might not translate into concrete benefits. The sectarian interpretation of the situation thus fails to explain why the US would commit a highly unpopular act of war just to help its ally with such flimsy gains.

The strategic case:

Israel, US want to destroy the Iran-Syria-Hizoballah nexus.

Alawite Syria has good brotherly relations with Shia Iran in the east (across Iraq) and Shia Hezbollah, that dominates parts of Lebanon, in its west. The anti-Israel Hezbollah, a militant and political organisation declared terrorist by most world powers, is supported and supplied by Iran. It is the Islamic Iran's major foray into the regional politics. It runs on an arc of Shia influence extending from near Quetta right up to the Lebanese shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

If the Assad government falls, it will be disrupted and Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia will supposedly benefit. The weakening of Hezbollah will reduce the size of security threat it poses to Israel. Iran will lose its only strategic ally outside its boundaries and deep into the region; it will be completely isolated and substantially weakened. It is already reeling under the crippling sanctions imposed by the western powers. All this is likely to delay and degrade Iran's efforts to go nuclear. The US would take a sigh of relief at that and Saudi Arabia would celebrate the demise of its main contender for power in the region. That's why Robert Fisk thinks that Iran, not Syria, is the West's real target.

Syrian President Hafez al-Asad (centre) with Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein (left), Algerian Foreign Minister Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika (right), and Syrian Vice-President Abd al-Halim Khaddam (far right, half-covered) at Arab League Baghdad Summit. -Source: The Online Museum of Syrian History
Syrian President Hafez al-Asad (centre) with Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein (left), Algerian Foreign Minister Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika (right), and Syrian Vice-President Abd al-Halim Khaddam (far right, half-covered) at Arab League Baghdad Summit. -Source: The Online Museum of Syrian History

But, will a regime change in Syria ensure that Hezbollah's supply lines are cut? Iraq falls between Syria and Iran and despite being a US ally it has not been able or willing to even check Iranian flights supposedly supplying Iranian arms to Syria. John Kerry chided Nuri al-Maliki's government over Iranian flights when he visited Iraq in March this year. Read Aljazeera’s report on it.

Whether or not it breaks the Shia arc, most critics agree that the end of the Alawite rule will be followed by years of chaos and mayhem. Are then the potential strategic gains worth the risk? Some insist that Israel, and by extension the US want to have 'controlled chaos' on the other side of its concrete fence. But then, there is little doubt that this chaos will breed more violence and extremism. Moreover, Israel has been surviving next door to the Alawites since the 1970 and in fact, the present period is the only time in its history when it felt least threatened by its almost dormant neighbor. Israel has anyways successfully insulated and fortified itself from its neighbors. Why would Israel want to upset the cart in Syria, especially when its results are unpredictable?

I am, however, not negating that the realignment of power in the region that will be followed by the fall of the Assad regime will have no gainers and losers but I do not see any major shifts and certainly not the ones that could justify a major and risky military undertaking. My question thus remains, what is driving the US assault on Syria?

The war industry case:

The US war industry wants to expel its competitor, Russia from the lucrative Middle Eastern market.

Wars are supplied services, weapons and ammunition by an industry that treads on a demand-supply balance, like all other industries do. The world spent a whopping $1,756 billion on its militaries in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) which is a reputed global watchdog on military and armament, working since 1968. The size of the war industry in each country is generally proportionate to its spending on its military. The US thus tops the list. Of the world’s 100 largest arms-producing and military services companies for 2011 (the SIPRI top 100 list), 44 were based in the US. The major client of these companies is their own military. Read about the top 10 weapons companies of 2011 here.

These companies also trade their products internationally, following the policies of their home country governments. SIPRI reports, in its 2013 Yearbook that the global arms trade was worth at least $43 billion in 2011 and more than half of this was done by just two countries, the US and Russia. The share of US companies stood at 30 per cent while Russia occupied second position with a 26 per cent share.

However, the future outlook for this industry is not quite rosy. SIPRI noted a decrease in world military expenditure in the past year. The US in particular, and Europe and the rest of the world in general, faced a major financial crisis in 2008, which the critics compare with the Great Depression of 1930s that was followed by World War II. The crisis has substantially reduced fiscal space for the governments forcing them to cut spending and go for austerity measures. The governments' choices in reducing expenses are constrained by their politics - cuts in social welfare are not popular among their electorates, while they don't mind reductions in military expenses.

The total global military expenditure thus fell in 2012, in real terms compared with 2011, and this is the first fall since 1998. More important, however, is regional breakup. The world's single largest military budget, that of the US, amounting to over $700 billion or 40 per cent of the world total, saw a substantial decrease of 5.5 per cent and that of Central and Western Europe shrank by 1.6 per cent. SIPRI notes that in other regions that did register growth like South Asia, "there was a major slowdown in the growth rate". The only exceptions are the Middle East and North Africa that recorded a very impressive growth of 8.3 and 7.8 per cent respectively. The two regions collectively spent $ 154.4 billion on their militaries in 2012. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the top 10 arms importers of the world for the five-year period 2008-12.

The business of the big armament companies is constrained at home and their future prospects are bleak. Their governments are worried too as this industry employs millions of people.

"Individual companies are taking steps to insulate themselves against austerity measures through military specialisation, downsizing, diversification, and exports and other forms of internationalisation. In some cases, company subsidiaries have maintained or increased arms and military services sales outside of the countries in which the parent companies are headquartered," says SIPRI.

The promising market of the Middle East is the proverbial ray of hope for the western war industry. They have the money, the willingness to spend and are not constrained on how to spend it. There is, however, one problem or an irritant, if you like to call it - Russia. The old enemy of the US is there to spoil all the fun.

Iraq, Syria and Libya were among the countries who allied with the Soviets in the Cold War. The regimes in these countries were supported and supplied by the Soviets, the 'responsibility' was later inherited by Russia. Their good relations continued after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. Iran also joined this club after the Islamic revolution of 1979. The Gulf states, however, wholeheartedly supported the US in the Cold War and their friendships have flourished in later years.

Russia exported food, medicines and weapons to Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The country has a big military complex that includes a massive war industry, employing around two million people. It has rejuvenated its military ambitions recently. Its 2011–20 State Armaments Program envisages wide-ranging reforms of its armed forces. According to SIPRI, "the rising trend in Russia’s military expenditure, which started in 1999, accelerated sharply in 2012, with a real-terms increase of 16 per cent". In February 2012, the Russian government announced plans to spend about $100 billion through 2020 to modernise its military-industrial complex.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian war industry is left with a few clients in the outside world which weighs negatively against it, not only in terms of business but also in terms of its shrinking military influence. According to a New York Times report, Russian arms sale to Iran dropped from $2.1 billion to $300 million in the period 2003-06 due to UN-imposed sanctions but the loss was compensated by more sales to Syria whose orders increased from $2.1 billion in 2003-06 to $4.7 billion in 2007-10. Russia recently lost another generous client - Libya - when the government of Muammar al-Gaddafi fell. The chief spokesman for Rosoboronexport, the state-owned weapons trading company of Russia, Vyacheslav N. Davidenko, had disclosed in an interview in 2012 that the new government in Libya has suspended about $4 billion in previously agreed-upon contracts.

The ouster of the Assad regime thus will destroy another of the Russian war industry's major clients. It will be ousted from the world's most lucrative arms market - Middle East. This will hurt its strategic position in the region and its repute in the global arms bazaar. One company's loss is another’s gain and when the times are tough you can't leave that to chance.

The people's case:

A handout picture released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network on July 15, 2012 shows Syrian mourners burying a body of a man in Baba Amr in the flashpoint city of Homs. -Photo by AFP
A handout picture released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network on July 15, 2012 shows Syrian mourners burying a body of a man in Baba Amr in the flashpoint city of Homs. -Photo by AFP

Syria has an estimated population of 23 million people, a little less than that of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and with one hundred thousand already dead, the conflict has rendered homeless over two million, that is almost every tenth family. An end to the violence is years, or decades, away. It will take even longer for sectarian and tribal fissures to mend, which ostensibly means that a generation is wasted. So, whoever wins this war - the US arms corporations or the Russian military complex, the Saudi Wahabis or the Irani Shias, the Israeli strategists or the Islamic militants - the Syrian people have already lost it.

Does then, the victory matter at all?


Archival Videos:

Footage of Yassir Arafat speaking to a crowd, then meeting Leonid Brezhnev and Hafez al-Assad. -Source: Wikimedia

Footage of Hafez al-Assad overseeing training of the Syrian army with his brother Rifaat, then meeting Leonid Brezhnev, Yassir Arafat, King Abdullah and King Hussein. -Source: Wikimedia