Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ron Smith: Syria and President Obama - why intervene now?

Sometimes international developments, and the political decisions that lie behind them, are hard to explain.  On the other hand, there are occasions when there seem to be too many plausible explanations, and that can be a worry as well!  This latter seems to be the case with the recent announcement from the Obama Whitehouse that America will now supply ‘military assistance’ to the Syrian opposition.  So, given the widely acknowledged ‘war weariness’ of the US population, why has this decision been taken, and why now?  The civil war in Syria has been going on for more than two years, and with much of the character that it now displays, so what explain the decision?
The proffered explanation has to do with the use of chemical weapons.  The evidence is in, we are told, and it is clear now that a ‘red line’ has been crossed.  Chemical weapons have been used (specifically Sarin, a nerve gas) and some 150 people have been killed.

However, isn’t this old news, apart from the claim of ‘confirmation’?  The first reports of suspected use of chemical agents came way back in March.  And what is so particular about being killed by gas, as opposed to being shot, stabbed, or bombed in your home by your own government?  To be sure, the use of chemical weapons is specifically forbidden under the 1993 Chemical Weapons convention.  But then deliberately attacking civilians is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and to the Statutes of the International Court, and the bulk of the 90,000 other victims of the Syrian Government, probably fall into this category.  So, if it isn’t the use of chemical weapons, what does explain the unexpected announcement?

Is it that the tide of war has now turned, with the Syrian government and its allies having retaken the strategically important town of Qusair.  Contrary to all expectations, it is now looking as if President Assad might actually win, and kill many more innocent Syrian civilians (as well as many members of the armed opposition) in the process.  This is a conflict that is increasingly being conducted without humanitarian restraint (on either side), with the gathering spectre of ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, as Shiites from over the border (Iranians and Hezbollah) join Alawites (a branch of Shia) to kill Sunnis (the Syrian majority), whilst Sunnis, are joined by extremists from Iraq and elsewhere to kill Shiites.  Surely (it might be said) we cannot (the United States cannot) stand by and watch that?  But, again, hasn’t that being going on for quite some time?

Of course, there is another way of looking at the implications of Qusair.  It is a balance-of-power thing. On present trends, it looks very likely that Iran and its Shiite allies (Assad and Hezbollah) will win, and that will not be in the strategic/security interests of the West, or indeed of the non-Shiite Middle East, including Israel.  As I write, Assad’s forces, including his allies, are gathering outside Aleppo, for the final assault.  This would also be a ‘win’ for Russia, which would thereby increase its power and influence in the region, as that of the US and West generally, sharply declines.  Plausibly, this is why the United States has felt impelled to intervene.

Perhaps, though, there is something else at work here.  Until Friday’s announcement, what was the persistent topic of debate in Washington?  Of course, it was scandals.  Is the American government spying on its own people?  Is it bugging the press and persecuting its political opposition?  Is the government of ‘transparency’ and honest-dealing also suppressing investigations into wrong-doing in the State Department?  I wrote about these things only a couple of weeks ago.

My answer, then, is that there is a simpler explanation for President Obama’s sudden announcement and that was to change the subject.  Instead of scandals various, we will discuss strategies and prospects for a Syrian intervention.  What is possible?  Could it be a success?  Is the President really serious?   In this respect it is noteworthy that he didn’t make the announcement himself.  This was done by Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben Rhodes, whilst elsewhere in the White House, Mr Obama entertained the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride community on the occasion of their celebration event.  It is also noteworthy that the announcement, itself, was conspicuously lacking in detail: weapons, perhaps, but not heavy weapons; not artillery or anti-aircraft weapons; no ‘no-fly’ zone; and certainly no ‘boots on the ground’.  And, perhaps, not immediately, anyway.

What will happen in Syria will be important to us in terms of our ideals and in terms of our strategic and security interests but we will not be able to influence events very much, beyond making sure that no more dangerous weapons get into the hands of those who do not mean us well.  There was a time when Western intervention might have been decisive; perhaps two years ago when President Assad started using his military against civil protesters.  But now Mr Putin is talking about supplying more heavy weaponry to Assad,  and Iran and Hezbollah are clearly intent on putting more ‘boots on the ground’.  We might as well get back to talking about the ‘scandals’.

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