Another turn of the screw in Syria

Updated April 16, 2018


NO, the recent missile attacks against Syrian targets have not led to World War III as predicted by many pundits. In the event, good sense seems to have prevailed even in the Trump administration, and the attacks were restricted to Damascus and Homs. Thus far, no fatalities have been reported, and more importantly, no Russian or Iranian soldiers were killed or wounded.

Despite Russian threats to shoot down incoming missiles, it would appear that Moscow did not intervene. Syria claims to have shot down over 70 missiles out of the 105 launched. This is difficult to verify at this stage, but we should be relieved that the US-led attack hasn’t caused greater mayhem, and that Trump hasn’t managed to disturb the precarious status quo in Iraq.

Clearly, Donald Trump was a prisoner of his own tweets, and having declared that Russia should be prepared for “new, smart missiles” to hit Syrian targets, he couldn’t have backed out. Mercifully, Defence Secretary Matis appears to have persuaded him to restrict the attack to a symbolic show of force rather than a full-scale “shock and awe” operation.

One reason for the restraint was a clear desire to avoid hitting Russian and Iranian targets, thereby opening new fronts in an already overcrowded battlefield. Also, there seems to be an emerging consensus, at least in Western capitals, that getting rid of Bashar al-Assad may not be such a good idea after all. After having backed the Syrian Free Army (SFA) initially, only to discover that it was an ineffective fighting force, Washington switched its support to jihadi extremists who were viewed as more motivated and better organised.

In fact, as outfits like Al Qaeda, the militant Islamic State group and, later, the Jabhat al-Nusra turned against the SFA, we began seeing a civil war within a civil war. Jihadists were supported by the Saudis and some Gulf states, with Turkey providing them with access to Syria. Soon, reports of non-lethal equipment like Western communication and night vision devices delivered to Saudi proxies began filtering out of the battle zones.

Soon, Assad’s claim to be fighting jihadists proved to be true, and the West appears to recognise that without Syria’s brutal dictator, the situation could well become worse. If the IS and its kindred groups had emerged victorious, Syrian minorities like the Alawites, Christians, the Druzes and the Kurds among others, would have faced a massacre or ethnic cleansing. This is what has happened in Iraq. So Bashar al-Assad is seen as the lesser of the evils, and while he remains a pariah, much of the world appears willing to tolerate him.

But this does not mean that his imminent victory would be welcomed in Washington. The fact that Russian and Iranian help has been a key factor in his recent military successes makes his triumph a bitter pill for many to swallow. The return of Russian influence in the Middle East is most unwelcome in Western capitals, and growing Iranian clout in Damascus is anathema to Riyadh.

While condemning the brutal Syrian campaign to clear the rebels out of Douma, Western media and politicians have been reluctant in spelling out the context in which Syrian jets have been bombing the town, and helicopters have allegedly been dropping barrel bombs containing poison gas. The reality is that Douma is virtually a suburb of Damascus, and has been occupied by jihadist elements virtually since the beginning of the civil war. From hiding places in the district, rebels have been lobbing shells into the Syrian capital, killing hundreds. In such a situation, any state would use all the force necessary to end the rebellion.

However, it is Assad’s alleged use of poison gas that has revolted so many. The televised images of children gasping for breath and screaming with pain has disturbed millions around the world, and have served to leave Assad isolated. But Russian soldiers and experts deny the latest allegation of the use of prohibited gas. Others ask why the Syrian government would risk international condemnation when it is on the verge of victory.

The Russian spin on the incident is that the gas attack has been staged to discredit Assad, and by extension, his backers in Moscow. According to this version, the White Helmets, a controversial human rights NGO that has been active in rescuing Syrians caught up in the fighting, was instrumental in creating the Douma scenario with the help of British special forces. In the past, too, the White Helmets — who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize — have been accused of such operations. The fact that they receive Western funding also casts doubts on their credibility.

While American, British and French experts are unanimous in asserting the use of chlorine gas, the Russians ask how they obtained samples to test, given the fighting going on in the area. But presumably the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will soon pronounce on the use of poisonous substances. But under its charter, it cannot accuse any state of being behind such attacks: all its experts will be able to do is to confirm or deny the use of prohibited gas.

Since it was first introduced as a weapon on the battlefields of the First World War, poison gas has evoked an abhorrence that other weapons haven’t. This is the reason protests against the US-led attack have been muted. But should we discover that the Douma attack was indeed staged, the backlash against Theresa May will be severe as only 22 per cent of the people of Britain support military action against Syria.

Whatever happens next, it appears that the UN has become a spectator as states now take military action even when they aren’t directly threatened.

Tailpiece: Last week, I mistakenly identified the Conservative Party coalition partner as Scottish. The DUP is in fact based in Northern Ireland. Apologies.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2018