Syria – The Vultures Dance

Shock vote defeat derails campaign for Syrian intervention

With the loss of the UK parliamentary vote on August 29th 2013 a serious blow was dealt to the West’s[1] march to military intervention in Syria.

The débâcle of the vote far from showing the strength of British democracy highlights the complete dependency of the UK on US patronage. In this respect Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s official spokesman, was quite correct in stating that Britain is “just a small island … no one pays any attention to them”.

Ordinary people throughout the western world overwhelmingly opposed intervention, at best viewing it as another fruitless and ruinous Neo Conservative[2] adventure and at worst, a direct helping hand to al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Most of all, the shock defeat exposed and threw into sharp relief the disagreements and splits within the elites. It also revealed the trepidation with which they view the future for western influence.

A botched campaign

The US, UK and France dusted off the templates of Iraq and Libya and with the ingredients of both WMDs and humanitarian grounds they thought they had a ‘slam dunk‘ for war. However, it transpired that this new ‘Coalition of the Willing‘ had badly miscalculated the mood and made the complacent assumption that what worked yesterday would work today.

US President Barak Obama has been now forced into seeking congressional support for a strike on Syria. From a position a couple of weeks ago of being confident of launching missile attacks within days, the President is now in the humiliating position of having to compete with Assad in a charm offensive on American TV networks.[3]

The tide turns against the rebels

Around the debate on military intervention some asked why had the West not intervened before now? After all a British intelligence dossier claimed there had been 14 previous chemical attacks by the regime up to the August 21st attack. In response the US, UK and France point to the scale of the chemical attack and, though this position was not as clear cut as perceived, was seen as crossing Obama’s ill advised ‘Red Line‘ on chemical weapons.

In a coincidence of timing Chatham House, a think tank close to political circles, published a report ‘Syria: Prospects for Intervention‘ just before the alleged Ghouta attack. In it they listed options for increasing western involvement. “The most likely options for scaled-up intervention are the supply of more and heavier arms to the FSA and an intensification of covert action; punitive air strikes triggered by a major crisis such as a massacre in Aleppo; and an intensification of externally imposed sanctions.”

The fundamental difference between previous incidents and the latest one is that the tide of the civil war, helped by the entry of Hezbollah, has turned in favour of the regime. Up to now the West thought that the rebels would win by attrition, albeit bloody.

Incidentally, the entry of Hezbollah explains Israel’s ambivalence to events in Syria. They’re torn between between wanting the ‘stable devil’ they know Assad to remain in power. On the other hand is the prospect of the increasing power and influence of their bitter enemy Hezbollah if Assad were to prevail.

Until recently the west has shown no interest in promoting peace talks[4], as already mentioned above, they thought the rebels would win. They are now only contemplating talks now that they have painted themselves into a corner. Their refusal to talk to Iran, one of the most important players in the region, because of disputes over nuclear issues has verged on infantile and stupid.

John Kerry in a press conference made the cynical offer of calling off air strikes if Assad turns over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week”. He went on to comment that condition was unlikely to be met. What he didn’t admit was that logistically the condition was near impossible to fulfil. Note the phase ‘every single bit of his chemicals weapons ‘. What counts as ‘every bit’ and how will it be verified? This essentially allows the US wriggle room to argue the terms of agreement so they can maintain the veneer of legitimacy for intervention.[5]

With the latest turn of events the West has been left exposed, resorting to futile finger wagging at the Russians and Chinese accusing them of acting in self interest in opposing military strikes. It’s rather a statement of the obvious that the Chinese and Russians act in their own interests. China at the 2013 G20 summit went as far to caution against intervention as, in the words of Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao, “Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price – it will cause a hike in the oil price”. Never the less, the lecturing from US and UK is pure hypocrisy. Just a cursory glance at how stubbornly the US defends it’s ally Israel in the UN Security Council illustrates the point.

The evidence

From Obama, Kerry through Cameron to Hollande, all speak of incontrovertible evidence that Assad is responsible for the chemical attack.

In-spite of John Kerry’s declaration that Assad’s guilt is “a judgement that is already clear to the world“, all that is offered by Kerry are links to Youtube videos. While these show the strong probability that a chemical attack of some sort took place they give no clues as to responsibility, not with the certainty asserted by the west.

The US has since qualified it’s evidence. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough talked of a “common-sense test” rather than “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence”

How does this evidence stack up? It was illuminating listening to the doubts and challenges to this so called incontrovertible evidence during the UK parliamentary debate. At times it verged on outright scorn, questioning what on earth Assad would gain from such an attack, especially as he’s been gaining the upper hand.

Perhaps in the face of such scepticism, briefings from intelligence agencies have attempted to play up a ‘rogue commander’ narrative. As a further sign of splits within the administration, officials have been briefing against the interpretation of the evidence by Kerry.

The assertions of the US and UK that only the Syrian government is capable of launching chemical attacks is contradicted by evidence on the ground. There have been arrests in Turkey of al-Qaeda linked rebels attempting to manufacture sarin. In Iraq a plot to spray sarin gas by remote control toy planes was foiled. The UN’s Carla Del Ponte claimed that there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” as to the use of sarin by the rebels in Syria.

Ghouta chemical attack August 21st 2013

The United Nations today (September 16th 2013) released it’s report into the chemical attack on Ghouta. The report concludes that a sarin gas attack was carried out in the early hours of August 21st and delivered by surface to surface rockets equipped with original or improvised warheads. There are important caveats that should be noted. For example on page 18 under the heading of ‘Limitations’:

“The time necessary to conduct a detailed survey of both locations as well as take samples was very limited. The sites have been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team.”

Rocket part numbers
UN report Ghouta chemical attack: Ordnance identity codes

As it stands the evidence is not conclusive as to the guilty party but both sides will no doubt pick and choose whatever supports their particular agenda.[6]

West plays judge, jury and executioner

The US, UK and France have zigzagged from one rationale for intervention to the next. One it demands regime change. The next it cloaks itself in humanitarianism saying it’s not about regime change but a moral question. As soon as those excuses are rejected Obama declares that It is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations.

In an attempt to strong arm Congress members into support, the US Secretary of Defense Hagel, playing the Iran card, warned of the grave consequences. “A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments – including the president’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,”

Chemical hypocrisy

The US and its allies have expended much energy on their moral outrage at the use of chemical weapons. However just a cursory examination of the West’s record shows its moralising as a sham. In a policy of preventing Iran a victory against Iraq in the 1980s war, recent CIA documents show that the US colluded with Saddam Hussein to carry out chemical attacks on Iranian troops. In the words of the military attaché at the time, Air Force Col. Rick Francona, “The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,”. It’s worth noting that at the time many western companies were involved in the manufacture and supply of equipment for Iraq’s chemical weapons programme.

Then there is the US’s own record, it’s liberal use of Agent Orange and Napalm during the Vietnam war. It’s estimated that there were just under 5 million casualties from Agent Orange attacks.

Israel’s use of white phosphorous against civilian areas in Operation Cast Lead drew very little comment from its western supporters.

In the recent past there was the use of depleted uranium ordnance by the US in the battle for the Iraq city of Fallujah in 2003/2004. The result is that Fallujah experiences ‘higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki’. The American response to complaints about the use of these weapons was eloquently summed up by Colonel James Naughton of U.S. Army Material Command in a Pentagon briefing, “They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of the them.”

These are just a few examples of the hypocrisy exercised over the question of chemical weapons but they are enough to show that the condemnation by the US and its allies is not based on principle. All their hand wringing and moral outrage on chemical weapons attacks in Syria is little more than a flag of convenience and a useful foil for intervention.

Who profits?

What are the motives of those in the West calling for air strike? What do they believe the US and its allies can gain from intervening in what is generally acknowledged as an intractable mess?

The wish list seem to be variations of three or four themes:

  • With the fall of Assad Russia would be chased out of its only military base outside its border.
    Putin has already demonstrated that Russia will not give up its influence easily. More naval assets have been sent into the Mediterranean although its very unlikely Russia would challenge the West militarily. Russia’s offer to Egypt for joint-military exercises in place of the one cancelled by the United States is a warning they would enter into more direct competition with West in the region.
  • Assad’s fall would be a blow against Iran as it would lose its main ally in the region
    This is naive on two counts. Firstly, there is the lesson of the Iraq fiasco. Iraq was partly intended as a counter-weight to Iran, the US invasion and resulting mess effectively removed a key opponent for Iran in the region. Secondly, Iran’s influence isn’t based on sectarianism it also enjoys influence in Sunni organisations (to the chagrin of the Gulf states) such as Hamas and could easily cultivate new allegiances.
  • Military strikes against Syria would serve to reinforce the message to Iran that US will carry through veiled threats of action Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran is no doubt very well aware of the risks. To risk further inflaming the region just to deliver a message to Iran is a disproportionate gamble and quite frankly idiotic.
  • With care taken over training and supplying the right groups, victory would be more likely to go those more sympathetic to the West in general and the US in particular.
    Hmm, that worked so well in Libya! Just a casual look at the reality on the ground shows the difficulties. There are reports that there over 1000 groups fighting in Syria. Though there are distinct groupings, these groups are amorphous and alliances notoriously fickle with members moving between groups. Clashes between the groups are frequent and include executions of FSA members by Jihadi fighters. The West’s chosen proxy, the Syrian National Council is riven with divisions. There have been examples of FSA co-operating with al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. One such example was the capture of Kurds by rebels who were then handed over to al-Nusra. Even in downplaying their strength Kerry has had to acknowledge the strength of al-Qaeda affiliated groups admitting that, “Extremists amount to 15 to 25% of the opposition”. In this highly unstable environment, talk of a victory of secular forces sympathetic to the ideals of the West is a fantasy.

Added to this mix is a political imperative to demonstrate to its rivals that the West, in particular US, UK and France, are still the dominant powers. Unfortunately for the them, the events of the last decade and the crisis in Syria is making mockery of this.

For the Western elites Syria is an ugly baby contest. They could bring about the fall of Assad only to be confronted with a weak failed state or worse, a state dominated by Jihadist sympathisers. Stratfor, hardly sympathetic to the Syrian regime, brutally assessed that, “…regimes that are destroyed must be replaced, and one cannot assume that the regime that succeeds al Assad will be grateful to those who deposed him. One must only recall the Shia in Iraq who celebrated Saddam’s fall and then armed to fight the Americans.” On the other hand in not intervening, the West faces the danger of the consolidation of other challengers to their domination in the region, Iran and Russia.

9/11 wars – The legacy

History weighs quite heavily on the shoulders of ordinary people and with good reason. They have bitter memories of the lies that took them into two disastrous wars in the Middle East.

This explains the contortions that supporters of intervention are having to resort to in order to avoid comparisons between involvement in the Syrian civil war to Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that Syria is quite different to the Iraq war, there is no direct comparison, for instance chemical weapons have actually been used in Syria. Instead they are more keen to draw comparisons to the Kosovo intervention citing that both wars involve genocide.

Closer examination shows intervention in Kosovo not to have been such a charitable venture. For the West at the time strategic concerns were just as important, such as “the risks to NATO countries of a wider war and the unity of Europe,“. By the time the West had intervened, genocide had already been conducted against Bosnia Muslims, incidentally with Dutch UN troops standing aside to let the Serbs carry out massacres. One of the worse acts of ethnic cleansing was carried out by the Croatians against Serbs after they recaptured Krajina.

From looking at history through rose tinted glasses, others try to re-write it. An example is a Washington Post article, where the author, in making the case for intervention, claims that the no fly zones were a direct response to the poison gas attacks on Kurds, “Hussein used chemical agents again as part of his campaign against Iraq’s Kurds (earning Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid the nickname “Chemical Ali”). In response, the United States established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, but that was more a reaction to a humanitarian disaster than to Hussein’s choice of weaponry.”

In a twist of irony the same newspaper just two days before in a fact checker article stated, “In 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish resistance forces, but the relationship with Iraq at the time was deemed too important to rupture over the matter. The United States did not even impose sanctions.”. In fact the two events were three years apart and in the intervening period Iraq invaded Kuwait…[7]

Washington Post
Washington Post front page September 2nd 2013

Advocates of intervention have also asserted that if military action had been carried out earlier in the civil war the subsequent bloodshed could have been prevented. This is not supported by events, quite the contrary. The rebels have been unable to topple Assad even with arm supplies from their patrons and floods of foreign fighters. Alongside their internal bickering they have been shown to be too weak to have ever been able to form a stable government. The more likely outcome is that events would have been fast tracked through the overthrow of Assad, and gone straight to sectarian violence and the possible fracturing of Syria. This line of reasoning is nothing more than a thinly disguised justification for the Neocon doctrine of pre-emptive intervention.

Those arguing simply that something must be done, that a signal must be sent as a deterrent to other tyrants as well as Assad, disregard the consequences of their actions. Their position is implicitly dishonest because they realise that the outcome is more than likely to be made worse. These stances share a false illusion. That they can and do control events, that they can control the consequences of their actions. Their entire position relies on this assumption. Just raising this point is enough to highlight their folly.

For action to be effective it has to tip the balance.

The public, quite correctly, concludes that for military action to be an effective punishment it must carry the consequence of altering the balance of the civil war, to tilt the outcome towards regime change.

In the words of Jack Straw MP, anything else would be a ‘shot across the bow’. In the Parliamentary debate (29th August 2013 3.49 pm), he said it would be little better than firing “a Tomahawk missile that is targeted to fly over Damascus and land in the unoccupied deserts beyond”.

The public are being quite pragmatic, they understand the potential for catastrophic consequences and ask if the situation would be made worse by military action than if it wasn’t undertaken? Most have, according to polls, have concluded that the situation would indeed be made worse.

It should be noted that for many ordinary people that Syria does present an agonising dilemma. They have no illusions in the viciousness of the Assad regime. The massacre carried out by regime forces in the village of al-Bayda, where over 150 men women and children were murdered, leaves no doubt as to the nature of Assad’s regime.

The SNC and FSA are very clear about what they think the purpose of intervention is: to change the balance towards regime change. As an aside, the calls by the SNC and FSA for air strikes is a tacit admission that they are not able to defeat the Assad regime.

Stuart Ramsay in a Sky News report, 9th September 2013, on the Turkey/Syria border reported that FSA planners had informed him of plans to move, (when the US commences bombing), south towards Damascus and West towards Latakia. Ominously, they stated their intention to collaborate with the better armed and more determined Jihadi groups to utilise their experience of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The evidence on the ground is that the more unsavoury elements of the opposition would have as much to gain, even through they may protest otherwise, from American air strikes as the FSA.

What if the Syrian army is ‘degraded’ in areas of Alawites and Christians sufficiently to allow rebel forces to take over? The very real risk is that one massacre is answered with another…

The days of the western posse are over

The crisis in Syria is taking place against the back drop of the decline of the United States as the world’s sole super power. As Paddy Ashdown lamented in a BBC interview, “We’re not living in the days of the western posse…the west’s power’s diminished”. The US is no longer the brash, bellicose US of the Bush Neocon era. What the Bush adventures revealed was that the US no longer possessed the overwhelming economic power to shape the world in its own image and that military power could not bridge that decline. The West generally has been chastened by the experiences of the Afghan and Iraq disasters and has further suffered the catastrophe of the Great Recession of 2008.

The western elites are finding that the reliable methods of the past no longer work, they only seem to reinforce the law of the unintended consequences.

There are open discussions of the decline of US, the NeoCon Truman Project poses the question “America at a Crossroads – Able to Lead, or Gulliver in Lilliput?”. Needless to say their recipe is more of the same but that they felt the need to address the question is in itself instructive.

Outcome

Whether brought about by accident or design, the Russian proposal for Syria to hand over control of its chemical weapon stockpile offers the US and its allies a face saving way out the impasse they made for themselves. This proposal is in no way a charitable act on the part of Russia or Iran. In the event of western military action there would be very little they could do to help or save their Syrian ally. They are as desperate as the West to pull back from the brink.

The US’s strategy is in tatters, all it has left is a wish list of demands. It reacts blindly to events it has no control over and blunders from one to the next.

While the FSA is unlikely to defeat the regime, conversely the regime is unlikely to defeat the rebel forces. At best they can fight each other to a stand-still, each ensconced in their respective territories. Some of the rebel groups are little better than criminal gangs. The risk with a stalemate is that leaders of these groups morph into warlords inflicting a brutal harsh discipline over their territories.

Additionally there are two nightmare scenarios for the West and Russia. The collapse of the Syrian regime into a failed state with its civil war spilling into the region or worse still, power falling into the hands of rebels obligated to al-Qaeda influenced elements.

This may well will prove a powerful motive force for an accommodation between the major powers, perhaps leading to fresh efforts to tempt or force the FSA into government. With the distance between the FSA and Assad and the West and Russia the likelihood of success appears remote.

The most likely outcome seems to be a protracted civil war with the very real risk of spill over into the surrounding region. If Syria falls, Lebanon goes down with it it. The break-up of Syria into autonomous or semi-autonomous areas is beginning to look more and more likely.

Far from representing a choice of lesser evils the major powers are instead facing a choice of disasters….

Gary Hollands – September 4th – 16th 2013.

Notes and references

1. The West. The principle allies of the United States, for example, the UK and other Anglo Saxon countries, France and NATO.

2. Neo Conservatives. The term is used to describe those on the right advocating free market laissez-faire economics and robust intervention abroad. In this context applies to those on the political right who believe that ‘modern threats facing the US can no longer be reliably contained and therefore must be prevented, sometimes through pre-emptive military action.’

3. Since this article was written Obama has postponed the Congress vote while a Russian proposal for chemical weapon disarmament is investigated. It was widely considered that he was at risk of losing the vote.

4. Talks have only just been reconvened (13th September), the first since June.

5. Within hours of these words being written Russia pounced on Kerry’s remarks to out-manoeuvre the US with their own proposals on the control of chemical weapons.

6. There are many who question what Assad could possibly have gained from a chemical attack, especially as he now has the upper hand against the rebels. Some have contended that he was seeing how far he could push the west. This would be such as risky strategy as to lack any credibility. Equally, the claims from conspiracy theorists that the event was a rebel black flag operation also stretches credulity. No evidence apart from single source interviews have been produced to back up those claims. Again, the risks of the consequences should it be discovered that rebels were involved makes it an unlikely scenario..

7. The Halabja chemical attack took place March 16th 1988 . The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait started 2nd August 1990. The no-fly zone was established after the first Gulf War.

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