Syria: A Chance For Honest Diplomacy

It’s an irony of history that an adversary can sometimes rescue you from trouble better than a friend. So when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that the US should defer its planned military attack on Syria if Damascus surrenders its stockpile of chemical weapons within a week, President Barack Obama grabbed the opportunity.
That saved Obama the embarrassment of US Congress rejecting his military-strike plan. Worse, had he attacked Syria to punish its regime for its alleged use of nerve gas against unarmed civilians, he would have triggered off uncontrollable chaos and destruction in the most volatile part of the world, besides mocking the United Nations.
Ultimately, international public opinion – reflected in the opposition to armed intervention expressed by a majority of people in the Arab world, France, Germany and Britain, and by 71 percent of Americans – and mediated by lawmakers and diplomats, helped Obama out.
The least Obama can do is explore the historic opportunity to pursue an impartial, balanced diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis which takes into account the fraught reality of the West Asia-North Africa region.
The US position on chemical weapons is profoundly hypocritical. It indulged Saddam Hussein when he used them against civilians at Halabja during the Iran war – because he was a US ally. It has never demanded that Israel ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. But it conjures up great indignation at Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons were indeed used on August 21 in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb. But there’s no conclusive evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s army used them. A United Nations team is investigating the matter. But Obama didn’t wait for its report and declared the regime culpable.
The US released intelligence, based on satellite images and video clips, which suggests that rockets carrying toxic chemicals were fired at Ghouta from “regime-controlled territory”, but it hasn’t identified the army unit responsible, and established that it acted on the regime’s orders.
The western case is weakened by widely different casualty estimates – 1,429 dead (US), 281 dead (France), and 350 dead (Britain). The British only speak of “some intelligence” suggesting “regime culpability”. So the verdict against the Syrian regime is based on the assessment that “no one else had the capability” – not “compelling evidence”.
Assad is no angel. He is guilty of numerous human rights violations. His regime has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for two-and-a-half years against domestic groups, and mercenaries from abroad, armed by Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Yet, it would be extraordinarily foolhardy, if not suicidal, for Assad to use chemical weapons against his own citizens – just when his forces are gaining against the rebels and UN inspectors are in Syria. Toxic-gas weapons such as Sarin, used in Ghouta, leave a unique chemical signature, which can be identified even after years. Details like the quantities used, their position, the devices deployed to disperse them, and their direction, can provide telltale clues.
Russia and Iran say they have proof that the Syrian opposition carried out the chemical-weapons attack. The opposition has a history of stage-managing brutal attacks to generate adverse publicity for the government – especially through Al-Jazeera TV, owned by the Qatar regime, which is hostile to Assad – and invite external intervention.
At any rate, the US has no legal mandate to intervene in Syria. Under the UN Charter, military intervention either can only be in self-defence (which Washington cannot invoke), or must be authorised by the Security Council.
Both Russia, which strongly backs and arms the Assad regime, and China, have repeatedly vetoed draft authorisation resolutions, and will certainly to do so again. Having accepted the Russian proposal, the US cannot bypass the UN.
Unlike in the past, the US lacks the backing of its Nato allies, including Britain, its poodle-like ‘special relationship’ partner. Its parliament rejected intervention. Germany, with elections round the corner, has washed its hands off Syria. And 64 percent of the French oppose strikes on Syria.
So the US’ allies will be reduced to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and possibly Israel – not even a fig leaf for a ‘broad coalition’, unlike in Iraq, Kosovo or Libya. Militarily punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred, rather than preventing an imminent disaster, makes very little sense.
Global public opinion has turned against external armed intervention after the cooked-up evidence over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, leading to war and mass civilian killings, the havoc following Qaddafi’s toppling in Libya, and the mess that the US is leaving behind in Afghanistan, where the civilian casualties are many multiples of those in September 2001.
The international community will not easily stomach unilateral armed intervention – no matter whether the guise is ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians against tyrants, ‘regime change’ and ‘promotion of democracy’, or taking out mass-destruction weapons.
Even the often-divided Arab League has opposed intervention in Syria unless by the UN. And former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Hans Blix have cautioned against a unilateral attack.
A diplomatic approach by the US could include several steps. First, it can help negotiate a ceasefire to the civil war in Syria, and promote reconciliation. The war has caused more than 100,000 deaths, economic devastation, and turned more than two million Syrians into refugees, besides internally displacing 4.25 million – figures comparable to Rwanda in 1994.
The Syrian conflict has acquired a viciously sectarian nature, with the mainly Sunni opposition targeting Alawite civilians and Alawite-dominated security forces, and aggravating the Shia-Sunni divide – thus strengthening the reactionary Saudi influence, and weakening Hezbollah, the sole force that has fought Israel to a standstill.
Second, the US should at once terminate its de facto alliance with odious groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Backing Al-Qaeda is a recipe for explosive instability in the entire West Asia-North Africa region.
Third, the US should welcome Syria’s decision to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, and demand that Israel also ratify it. (It signed it in 1993.) The reason why many Arab states didn’t sign the CWC, and why Egypt still keeps out of it, is that Israel has a substantial nuclear arsenal, estimated larger than those of India and Pakistan combined, but isn’t a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the CWC.
There’s a strong case for establishing a Free of all Weapons of Mass Destruction Zone in the Middle East, and negotiating a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace agreement with full statehood for Palestine. It’s imperative that the US is scrupulously impartial if it wants real stability in the region and to eliminate Al-Qaeda’s influence there.
Obama must get out of the corner he has painted himself in with his arbitrary ‘red line’ on Syria. This risks getting embroiled in Israel and Saudi Arabia’s agenda to weaken Iran-backed Hezbollah as well undermine Syria, Iran’s sole Arab ally.
Soon, another ‘red line’ could be activated – over Iran’s nuclear programme. This will wreck the chances of a settlement which caps Iran’s uranium enrichment capability to sub-weapons-grade levels while permitting enrichment for peaceful purposes. Worse, it could set off a horrific conflagration in the region.