The political chemistry of chemical weapons in Syria

By Ameen Izzadeen
If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not crossed the red line or won’t cross it, then take the red line to him. This was what some countries appear to be doing in their effort to bring about a US-led invasion of Syria with United Nations approval.
Two weeks ago, Britain and Israel claimed that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against the rebels fighting to overthrow the authoritarian regime of Assad. British Prime Minister David Cameron said it appeared a war crime was being committed by Syria. Similar fears were expressed by France. These countries claimed to possess evidence of chemical weapons use in Aleppo and Homs. Britain went one step further and claimed that it had obtained soil samples that indicated the use of Sarin gas.
These claims had their impact at the United Nations, which has become a tool in the hands of imperial forces. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office said it wanted to investigate the claim – a move that may set in motion a process to rubber-stamp western intervention in Syria. Britain, France and Israel want Ban to send a team to Syria to investigate the claim that the Syrian forces have used chemical weapons. Such an investigation reminds one of the lies and deception that led to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the United States deliberately interpreted the reports of UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed al-Baradei to conclude that Iraq had not destroyed its weapons of mass destruction in compliance with UN resolutions.
Alarmed by these new developments, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that Syria, where Moscow maintains a naval base, should not face a repetition of the “Iraq scenario”.
Last week, addressing the UN Security Council, Jeffrey Feltman, UN under-secretary for political affairs, said: “The secretary-general [Ban Ki-moon]’s position is that, at this time, the mission should investigate the allegations pertaining to incidents in Aleppo and Homs. While awaiting access to the Syrian territory, the experts of the mission are studying the information on the alleged use of chemical weapons….”
A UN team is already in Cyprus, awaiting Syria’s approval to enter the country. Syria which earlier said it had no objection to a UN investigation has since backtracked and blocked the UN team’s visit.
The Guardian (UK) newspaper quoted a Security Council source as saying: “While we would like the investigation to go ahead in Syria … we are hopeful that the investigation team will still be able to undertake elements of the investigation even without access to Syria. This could include conducting interviews in refugee camps.”
Well, all this indicates that the weapons-of-mass-destruction formula is being retrieved from the dustbin of Iraq’s history and given a new touch.
Syria has not denied it has chemical weapons, but said such weapons would be used only if the country’s sovereignty is threatened. Syria is one of the few countries that have not signed the UN chemical weapons ban treaty.
But what is intriguing is the United States’ blow-hot-blow-cold policy. Last month, President Barack Obama said if it was found that chemical weapons were used, the Assad regime would have crossed the red line and it would be a game-changer. But within weeks, Obama softened up his stance, much to the chagrin of the US hawks, Britain, Israel and others who are calling for a regime change in Damascus. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel appeared to take a pragmatic approach when he played down the claims made by Britain and others. “Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another … And that’s not at all questioning other nations’ intelligence, but the United States relies on its own intelligence. So until I can see that intelligence, I really don’t have anything else to say,” Hagel told reporters this week while in Egypt.
Obama said the US would decide on what to do next only if rock-solid proof was found that a gas attack had taken place. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we may find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilise the international community to support what we do,” Obama told reporters. His comments came as analysts began to raise questions as to who gave the soil samples to Britain and how it obtained it and when. The British Defence Ministry has no answer.
So it is understandable that the Obama administration did not want to jump headlong into another unpopular war. According to a Reuter poll, more than 60 per cent of the Americans are opposed to a war in Syria.
Perhaps, Cameron needs such a war to consolidate his power before Britain goes to elections in May 2015 or even before that. His Conservative party could form the government only with the support of the Liberal Democrats.
But Obama has no such compulsions. With a desire to honour the expectations of those who gave him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in the back of his mind, he is playing for the history books.
Besides, he has other reasons to be wary. The US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced outcomes that are only favourable to US foes. In the case of Iraq, it is Iran that is reaping the benefits and in Afghanistan it will be the Taliban, once the US troops are withdrawn next year. He is probably also not unaware that the Western intervention in the Libyan civil war has only produced a democratic anarchy with the government unable to provide security to even diplomatic missions while groups that fought for the ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi refuse to disarm themselves and dictate terms to the government.
Another concern for the Obama administration is the Islamic fundamentalist outlook of the Syrian resistance. Last year, the United States slapped the terrorist label on An-Nusra group. But this group which is allied with al-Qaeda in Iraq is the most successful rebel group in Syria. In Aleppo and other areas under its control, the group runs Islamic shariah courts. If the Americans intervene and help bring about a regime change in Damascus, they will be playing into the hands of Islamists who are not only against Israel but also against pro-US monarchies and dictatorships in the Arab world. This is why the Obama administration is yet to fulfil its promise to arm the rebels.
Yet the US hawks are not happy. They say that Iran’s nuclear threat could be neutralised and Israel’s security assured only if Assad is ousted and the lifeline to pro-Iranian militant group, Hezbollah, in Lebanon is cut off.
Rightwing politicians and the media scoff at Obama for pussyfooting on Syria and having a marshmallow spine. The hawks also say such inaction only strengthens the resolve of states such as Iran and North Korea to pose a threat to US interests.
As things stand today, Assad backed by Iran, Russia and China is playing his moves well and probably may have checkmated the US.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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