A Syrian child refugee cries as he stands at a queue waiting to receive aid from Turkish humanitarian agencies at Bab al-Salam refugee camp in Syria near the Turkish border in this December 22, 2012 file photograph. The civil war that has unfolded in Syria over the past two and a half years has killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes. Reuters
The way the chips are placed on the table indicates that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad will have all the luck to continue to play the dangerous game. He knows his enemies’ weaknesses and plays the game accordingly. Hell or hailstorm, limited attack or full-scale invasion, he is determined to stay.
The United States, Britain, France and Assad’s enemies in the region – Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – have so far failed to bring about a regime change as they did in Libya. Assad is not a moron like Muammar Gaddafi and he knows why his enemies are backtracking and postponing the much-bandied-about military intervention. Assad also knows that even if the West decides to act, it will be only of limited nature – and he is prepared to face it and survive.
Syria has faced such military attacks – more than thrice -- in the recent past from Israel. Each time Israel launched an attack on Syria’s suspected nuclear sites or chemical weapon dumps, Assad’s army absorbed the attack and exercised prudence. Any form of retaliation, Syria felt, would be a drain on its military resources and advantageous to the rebels.
Assad is also aware that there is a big gap between the United States’ rhetoric and its action. The caution with which the Barack Obama administration responds to the Syrian crisis and the excuses it gives for not responding with tough military action are in sharp contrast to the manner in which the US and its allies acted in the case of Libya. Last year, Obama waxed eloquent that any use of chemical weapons by Syria in the civil war would be the “red line” and a game changer. But every time this red line was crossed in the Syrian civil war, the much warned-about military strike did not take place.
Even on Wednesday, Obama disappointed the war party when he said the US had conclusive evidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack near Damascus but he had not yet made a decision about whether to intervene militarily. However, he warned he would fire a “shot across the bows” that would send the Assad government “a pretty strong signal that it better not [use chemical weapons] again”. Instead of the shot across the bow, his remarks made during an interview with the PBS appear to be giving a shot in the arm for Assad. The Obama remarks came as Russia quashed a British move to get the United Nations Security Council’s approval for a military attack on Syria.
Whether Obama is derided as a reluctant warrior by his critics, his resolve to stop the use of chemical weapons is a welcome change in the US defence policy, given the country’s ugly past that speaks volumes about using atomic bombs in Japan in 1945, Agent Orange chemical weapons in Vietnam in the 1970s and depleted uranium in Iraq as recently as 2004. Besides, US companies supplied chemicals to Saddam Hussein to manufacture chemical weapons while the then US President Ronald Reagan provided the Iraqi dictator with information about Iranian troop positions and turned a blind eye when Iraq used chemical weapons on Iranian troops.
Obama’s caution probably also reflects the public mood in the US. The latest opinion polls show that more than 60 per cent of the Americans do not want a war on Syria. His soft response may also be stemming from advice that he should wait till the UN team probing the recent nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians releases its report. It is believed that both sides in the Syrian conflict have used chemical weapons. On Wednesday, Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Ja’afari accused Britain of arming the Syrian rebels with chemical weapons to bring about a situation where western powers could put the blame on the Assad regime and intervene in the Syrian conflict.
As Thursday dawned, the possibility of a Western-led attack on Syria faded with Obama preferring a tailored and limited attack while Russia opposed any military attack without UN Security Council approval.
Washington’s reluctance to act decisively was not any pussyfooting by it. Rather, it is a strategic move. At times, even non-intervention also brings the desired results and serves a country’s national interest. President Obama -- unlike his predecessor George W. Bush – does not rush to a war and get stuck. He probably knows that in the Syrian civil war, the United States stands to lose if either side wins. Thus he does not want to stage a military assault that will tilt the balance in favour of the rebels.
The overthrow of Assad, the US feels, on the one hand will weaken Iran and Hezbollah and strengthen US allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. On the other, it may bring into power anti-Assad rebels who are ideologically linked to al-Qaeda, an avowed US enemy. Some of these rebel groups are accused of killing minority Alawites and Christians.
Jabhat an-Nusra, the most powerful and effective rebel force fighting the Syrian regime, has declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda, especially al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The United States last year declared an-Nusra a terrorist organisation, but the move saw several other Syrian rebel groups vowing to stand by an-Nusra. Needless to say, such a development scuttled US plans to isolate extremist elements and promote the so-called moderate groups. Washington is now wary about the post-Assad situation where Syria could become an al-Qaeda-led state on the borders of Israel.
As the possibility of a limited US military response looms large, an-Nusra takes no chances. It fears that if the attack eventually takes place, the US will not only target Syrian military positions but also the Islamic rebels. Thus an-Nusra has advised its members to spread out and not to bunch together in large numbers in one place. The Americans would be more than happy if a secular liberal opposition group takes over Syria after Assad -- or even a moderate Islamic group which will listen to the dictates of the US or its main Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. The problem is there is no such group among the rebels. The Saudis and the US depend on regularly squabbling Syrian exile groups which are united only by their hatred towards Assad.
Thus the ground reality still favours Assad. He knows there won’t be a large scale military assault or ground invasion for the time being. He knows that his enemies fear that a ground war will engulf the entire region in a war, the scale of which can be described only in Armageddon terms. Such a war will involve Iran which has vowed to defend Syria. Some reports say Iran has already entered the war by sending its Revolutionary Guards and providing weapons and training to pro-Assad militias including Syria’s minority Alawites who make up some ten per cent of the population but hold top positions in the government and the military. President Assad is an Alawite, a group that is regarded by the Sunni Muslims, the majority in Syria, as heretics. But, Shiite Iran and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militias in Lebanon see the Alawites as allies although the Alawite religious beliefs go contrary to the fundamentals of Shiite Islam.
Not only Iran, but Hezbollah, too, has entered the Syrian war in a big way. The entry of Hezbollah, on the one hand, has reversed the early rebel successes. But on the other, it has taken the war to Lebanon where hundreds have died in sectarian violence linked to the Syrian war.
Leave alone any ground invasion, some fear even a limited military response by western powers will have serious repercussions with Iran and Hezbollah intensifying their moves to defend the Assad regime. They may even attack Israel, which is trying to fast track a US attack on Syria by providing the Americans the so-called evidence in the form of what Israel claims to be intercepted communications between Syrian military and defence officials. Whether Israel will hit back or be persuaded by the US not to get involved – as happened during the 2003 Iraq war – is too early to predict.
Even Iraq, which is closely and nervously watching the developments in Syria, could be dragged in to fighting alongside the Syrian forces. If the rebels succeed in Syria, it will spell disaster for Iraq. A rebel victory will only strengthen the Sunni terror group, al-Qaeda in Iraq which is responsible for regular bomb blasts that kill civilians in Shiite dominated regions. From where the money and weapons come to al-Qaeda in Iraq is a not a major mystery in a region where global and regional powers have a big stake. So the Shiite-dominant government in Baghdad will do its utmost to prevent a rebel victory in Syria. Reports from Baghdad say that with state connivance, hundreds of Iraqi Shiite militia men go to Syria to fight the Sunni rebels. This underscores the ground reality that the Syrian conflict has taken a sectarian turn. Any semblance of a fight for democracy – the main thrust of the Arab Spring – is hard to be traced in the Syrian Spring.
The present situation indicates that the stalemate in Syria will continue even after a limited attack by the US and its allies. Like the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian civil war may also drag on for years.
In the circumstances, Russia’s proposal for an international conference on Syria may offer a solution provided it involves all the parties including the Assad regime, Iran and rebel group representatives with every stake holder working towards a unity government. The US and trigger happy Britain and France should cooperate with Russia before more civilians are killed in the conflict which has already seen more than 100,000 civilian deaths and some two million refugees.