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More suffering for Syria

May 08, 2013

A COUPLE of months ago, Barack Obama declared that evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a “game changer”.

It was an unfortunate choice of words. The conflict in Syria is certainly no game, at least not for the wretched nation’s citizens.

However, a pair of Israeli air strikes, ostensibly on Syrian military targets, could indeed fit that metaphor.

Israel has semi-officially indicated that the attacks were directed against Hezbollah, rather than intended to destabilise the Assad regime. Western media accounts suggest the aim was to deplete stockpiles of Iranian-supplied Fateh-110 missiles that the Lebanese militia could have used to strike targets deep inside Israel.

The veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk pertinently wonders “why, when the Syrian regime is fighting for its life, would it send advanced missiles out of Syria”. He also notes that Israel’s military action clearly benefits the rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad, “and since Israel regards itself as a Western nation — best friend and best US ally in the Middle East, etc, etc — this means ‘we’ are now involved in the war, directly and from the air”.

Of course, Israel is not the only regional US ally aiding the rebels. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan may be in a somewhat different boat, but at least their goal is more obvious: the overthrow of the status quo. Israel is more ambivalent, given that Assad and his father kept the Golan border region relatively trouble-free for nearly 40 years.

But that has lately been changing, with Syrian troops redeployed to defend Alawite strongholds and rebels establishing their writ in the abandoned areas. Just last month, Israel’s military chief, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, said, “We are seeing terror organisations gaining footholds increasingly in the territory. For now they are fighting Assad. Guess what: we’re next in line.”

If that’s the case, does it make sense for Israel to weaken Assad? The regime in Damascus may have no solid basis for its allegation that the Israeli attacks were coordinated with the rebels, yet Syria’s failure to retaliate has provided rhetorical ammunition to the opposition, while at the same time enabling the hawks in Washington to contend that the apparent absence or ineffectiveness of Syrian air defences demolishes one of the main arguments against establishing no-fly zones.

President Obama has lately come under considerable pressure from Republicans and Democrats alike to intervene, amid contentions that the “game changer” he referred to has come to pass and the “red line” he mentioned last year has been crossed.

In fact, that is not actually the case. US and other Western intelligence agencies indeed claim to have circumstantial evidence of the use of chemical weapons — notably the nerve agent sarin — but, as Obama has indicated, the proof isn’t entirely convincing. Some critics have argued that the bar has been set too high. Others are insisting that the US must get over the Iraq syndrome.

Ten years ago, the intelligence community was essentially bulldozed into concocting evidence of weapons of mass destruction. One would like to think there is greater ambivalence this time around because there is relatively less pressure from the White House to produce a predetermined result.

United Nations investigator Carla del Ponte’s pronouncement this week that in fact sarin might have been used by Syrian rebels rather than the Assad regime adds another dimension to the controversy. She spoke of “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”.

When the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, of which Del Ponte is a member, subsequently noted it had not reached any “conclusive findings”, Western media outlets contended it was distancing itself from what she had declared — whereas it was essentially saying the same thing.

The fog of war inevitably makes facts harder to ascertain. It clouds judgement, too. In lieu of direct military intervention, the US administration is reportedly considering lethal supplies to the rebels — never mind that it has already been engaged in this endeavour through proxies. Intermittent American press reports meanwhile point out that jihadist elements such as Jabhat Al Nusra have the upper hand among the Syrian opposition.

This, it has been argued, is a consequence of American prevarication. Had the US intervened at the outset, the Islamists could have been sidelined. The Libyan experience, however, should militate against that presumption.

Of course, Syria isn’t Libya, nor is it Iraq. Chances are, though, that its resemblance to both may steadily increase. Post-Assad scenarios already include the assumption of an eventual confrontation between rival rebel factions. Could Syria perchance turn into another Afghanistan?

The only sensible response to the conflict entails striving to end it. This cannot be achieved by taking sides or by arming one side or the other, let alone by violating Syria’s sovereignty in the Israeli manner.

It is all very well to berate Iran and Russia for aiding Assad, but they are not the only guilty parties. US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Moscow, but his talks in the Kremlin would have carried that much more weight had it been possible to view Washington as something approaching a disinterested arbitrator.

It is nothing of the kind. Nor can much be expected from the UN, given its chronic structural paralysis. Sure, chemical weapons are an abomination, but both sides in the Syrian conflict have demonstrated their ability to perpetrate unspeakable atrocities and indulge in mass destruction even without the aid of nerve agents.

Even at this stage, a concerted effort to cut off arms supplies and push the less unreasonable elements on both sides towards a negotiated solution may just pay dividends. But miracles don’t happen, do they?