Less than a week ago, at the end of August, a tripartite missile attack
against Syria by the U.S., France and the U.K. seemed certain and imminent. Now
(September 2.), while such an attack, without British participation, remains
likely sometime soon, it is no longer certain to happen. The plans have gone
awry due largely to the Westminster parliament’s failure to vote for the
coalition government’s motion sanctioning such an attack “in principle”. At the
time of writing Obama has committed himself to seeking congressional approval
for the attack, a decision clearly influenced by the British government’s
recourse to parliament. In turn, the unintended and unwelcome delay has led to
public pressure in France for President Hollande to seek parliamentary approval
for French participation in military action against Syria. Much of the
commentary on the stalled military operation has understandably emphasized the
similarities to the prelude to the invasion of Iraq ten years ago. Now it is
claimed that the U.S. intelligence services have “irrefutable evidence” that
Bashir al Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. Now, as in
2003, the “coalition of the willing” argue that to attack Syria without UN
backing will not be in breach of international law. Now, as in 2003, members of
the UN Security Council (Russia and China) who refuse to support military
action, are accused of threatening an “unreasonable” use of the veto. As in
2003, the U.S. president. asserts that a missile attack on a dictatorial Arab
state is necessary to defend U.S national interests. There is one notable
difference in this narrative. In 2003 the French, who opposed the planned
invasion of Iraq, were the pariahs, excoriated by Bush and Blair. Now, France
is honored by the U.S. Secretary of State as “our oldest ally”.
As everybody knows, and as the specialists never cease to remind us, the politics of the Middle East are extremely complex. This is true, but too often those determined to intervene in this complex melange appear like bulls entering a china shop. In light of the horrors unleashed by the civil war in Syria it may seem inappropriate to attempt to treat this subject with humor, but a recent short letter to the Financial Times from a Mr. K. N. Al-Sabah makes a telling point in a few words. It is worth quoting:
“Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf States are against Assad! Assad is against the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi. But the Gulf States are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against the Muslim Brotherhood! Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing the Muslim Brotherhood! Obama is backing the Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the U.S.! Gulf States are pro-U.S. But Turkey is with Gulf States against Assad: yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is backed by Gulf States!
Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.”
Those contemplating delivering a “short, sharp shock” to the Assad regime could do worse than taking time off to reflect upon Mr. Al-Sabah’s presentation of the dramatis personae of Middle East politics. Instead we are treated to “certainties” and declarations about moral outrage at the use of chemical weapons and the need to punish war criminals and deter them and others from continuing to perpetrate their crimes. The British, U.S. and French governments, who are clamoring for intervention against the Assad regime, have come close to accusing the opponents of intervention of culpability in the commission of war crimes. Following their defeat in the House of Commons, some prominent Tory MPs, including government ministers, let fly streams of obscene invective against Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition, accusing him of aiding Assad and betraying the trust of the United States. And this is despite the fact that more than thirty Tory MPs and a handful of Liberal Democrats voted with Labour against their own government’s motion. Such is the debased level to which parliamentary politics has sunk in this country.
Because – as was the case with the Iraq war – opponents of intervention are being accused of giving succor to the Assad regime and turning a blind eye to its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people, it is necessary to spell out unequivocally the reasons for opposing military intervention.
On the basis of evidence in the public domain it seems that a chemical weapons attack, probably using the nerve gas, sarin, was launched against the Ghouta district, east of Damascus, on August 21. resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. It is possible, but not certain, that this attack was carried out by Assad’s military forces. Unless and until firm evidence establishing responsibility for the attack is available, conflicting claims by the regime and its opponents remain speculation. Prima facie it seems surprising to say the least that the regime would have ordered such an attack just as UN inspectors were about to commence their investigations. On the other hand elements within the opposition, particularly those like Jabhat al-Nusra, who are affiliated to al Qaeda, if they possess such weapons and the means of delivering them, may well have used them in order to discredit the regime and tip the balance in favour of western intervention. Moral considerations are unlikely to weigh heavily with al-Qaeda. Against this contention it is claimed by the US, Britain and France, that only the regime has the capacity to deploy such weapons. Whatever the case may be, there is no doubt that their use against civilian targets is a particularly heinous crime. But it is striking that the US and UK governments who are now agitating for action to punish the regime and prevent the repetition of such crimes, have nothing to say about the use of chemical weapons such as agent orange and white phosphorous in wars they have launched from Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s to Iraq in 2003/2004.
In Vietnam children are still being born five decades later suffering from various cancers, physical deformities and mental disorders resulting from the use of the lethal herbicide dioxin, millions of gallons of which were dropped by the U.S. over Vietnam. In Korea in the early 1950s, in Vietnam in the 70s and Iraq four decades later the US unleashed white phosphorous, a chemical substance that burns all oxygen, melting the skin and suffocating everyone within its range. In 2004 MK-77 bombs containing this substance were used as offensive weapons in Iraq in violation of the 1980 convention on certain conventional weapons. White phosphorous was also used by the Israelis against densely populated areas in Gaza in 2008. The point is not to excuse the use of chemical weapons in Syria or to deny that they have been used, but rather to expose the hypocrisy and double standards of Obama, Cameron, Hollande and their supporters whose expressions of moral outrage seem cynically selective. Whoever may be responsible, there can be no justification for the military attack against Syria that is being planned in Washington and supported by the British and French governments.
Quite apart from the fact that in the United States, in Britain and France and throughout Europe and the rest of the world public opinion is solidly against western intervention, the case against it is overwhelming on purely pragmatic grounds. The whole region is a powder-keg. In the event of U.S. Tomahawk missiles raining down on targets in Syria, any one or more of the following consequences may be expected:
Syrian attacks against Israel. Even if such attacks were to cause little damage, Israeli counter attacks would be inevitable with unpredictable potential for escalation.
Greatly intensified action in Syria and Lebanon by Hezbollah against Sunni targets, escalating the internecine sectarian conflict in both countries and tipping Lebanon back into catastrophic violence.
A rapid increase in the flood of refugees from Syria into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. This would result in a barely manageable crisis becoming completely unmanageable, particularly for Jordan.
In the increasingly chaotic situation in Syria caused by the U.S. attack, the intra-Islamic Sunni-Shia/Alawite sectarian blood-letting is likely to intensify. If the opposition militias gain ascendancy, the advantage may go to Jabhat al-Nusra and thence to al-Qaida, a fanatical Sunni terrorist organization which will make a strange and rather unreliable ally for the United States and its western friends.
If the Assad regime fears for its survival it may resort to the use against its enemies of whatever weapons it has at its disposal, including chemical weapons. This would result in the very outcome the intervention was supposed to prevent.
If the Assad regime faces the prospect of defeat, its ally, Iran, could decide it has little to lose by acting more forcefully in its defense – or at least to intensify pressure on the U.S. and its allies. There is likely to be increased military assistance to Hezbollah which has the capacity to act in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria itself where it has a huge presence on Assad’s side. Particularly if Iran feels that an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities is more likely, it could threaten to block the Straits of Hormuz.
Then there is Russia. While it is extremely unlikely that Russia will want to become involved in a direct military confrontation with the United States, it has a great deal invested in Syria. Its only port in the Mediterranean is there and this week a Russian battleship was dispatched to the Med. Russia’s deputy prime minister has said that “The West is playing with the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade.” He said that any military attack on Syria without the support of the UN Security Council would be a “grave violation of international law.” Komsmolskaya Pravda warns that the dangers are similar to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Even allowing for exaggeration, at the very least the Russians are likely to increase their supply of weapons to Damascus. They could also forge closer links with Iran and reduce their co-operation with Washington.
Should the United States go ahead with its planned attack on the Assad regime (and today, September 3. it is beginning to look more rather than less likely), at least some of the possible consequences listed above are likely to ensue. One thing seems beyond doubt: the outcome will not be the one the perpetrators hope for and expect. The result will be at best greatly increased instability in the region and at worst a region-wide conflagration that could turn out to be a catastrophe with global repercussions. It is therefore to be hoped that there is still time to increase public pressure in the USA and Europe to force the Obama administration to draw back from the brink.