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Much confusion, no relief: The endless Syrian quagmire

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How do we get out of here?

In November 2012 I attended a panel session at the Halifax International Security Forum entitled, Syria - there must be some way out of here. There was palpable sense of desperation in the questions that many members of the forum addressed to panelists Afra Jalabi (a Damascus-born Arab-Canadian journalist and peace advocate), Cengiz Candar (a journalist with Radikal Daily in Turkey), Raghida Dergham (the diplomatic correspondent for Al Hayat), and Safeen Muhsin Dizayee (of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq) that clearly reflected the sentiments of the lyrics of All Along the Watchtower:

"There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief.
There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief." – Bob Dylan

The situation was bad and getting worse. There seemed no way to break the impasse. The suffering of the Syrian people, already unimaginable, was growing daily. Almost a year later, the confusion is even greater, relief even more intangible, and there is still no clear path out of the Syrian morass.

The American Case

The White House makes a compelling and coherent case that the chemical weapons attack on August 21, 2013 was carried out by the Assad regime. It might even be true. The problem is that, in this public unclassified version of the report, almost all of the human, signals, and geospatial intelligence that the report is based on, is not provided -- you have to be an "international partner" of the USA to see the real goods.

Victim of Syrian gas attackIs this good enough? In my view, it is not. As a result of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) debacle of the 2003 Iraq War, the American government labours under a significant credibility gap in relation to providing evidence to justify a military intervention. This is a completely self-inflicted intelligence wound. While it is understandable that not all of the evidence that the USA may have could be publicly released, since some might compromise sources or reveal intelligence methods, nevertheless, if it expects to win over any but the most credulous of observers, it must provide significantly more detailed evidence to establish the verity of its case. Otherwise, great skepticism is to be expected, and is entirely warranted.

That said, the report presents a useful summary of events based on open source information and reporting. The one worthwhile conclusion that the report draws from this open source information is that the simultaneous and multiple strikes of chemical weapons in several Damascus suburbs (12 different sites in the Kafr Batna, Jawbar, 'Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu'addamiyah neighborhoods within a span of four hours) could technically and logistically have been executed by forces loyal to the Assad regime whereas, "We have seen no indication that the opposition has carried out a large-scale, coordinated rocket and artillery attack like the one that occurred on August 21." Many of the other conclusions drawn in the report have to be considered unsupported assertions since the evidence to substantiate them (see above) is simply not provided.

The Russian Case

Vladimir PutinThe Russian government disputes American conclusions. President Vladimir Putin has argued that this use of chemical weapons is instead, a "provocation" perpetrated by Syrian rebel forces in order motivate a foreign-led strike against the Assad regime. It must be noted that Russian (and before that, Soviet) political thinking has been extensively grounded in this concept of "provocation", a kind of Hegelian, dialectical reversal whereby the attribution of events are explained by their opposites. Thus, the use of "provocation" by the Russians suffers from a significant credibility gap given the long history of the regime in employing it as a sophisticated exercise in sophistry. 

Nevertheless, it might be true. The attack has certainly greatly ratcheted-up the possibility of a foreign-led strike that, prima facie, would benefit rebel forces. Would the rebels deliberately kill hundreds of their own supporters in order to advance their political agenda? It's a moot point, however, it says a great deal about Russian political culture that the Russians have no difficulty in giving credence to such tactics.

The Russians make their case largely on the basis of a report that they prepared for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons regarding a separate attack on March 19, 2013 in Khan al Asal in northern Syria that killed 26 people. In the report, (which has not been released so all we have to judge it on is what Russian authorities say it contains) the Russians allege that this chemical attack was carried out by rebel forces, largely on the basis of evidence that the sarin used was not of military grade.

Victims of gas attacks in Syria

If true, this would be important information indicating that rebel forces have at least some access to chemical weapons and that, at least some rebel factions have no compunction in deploying such weapons. The problem is that this is a very large "if" since -- as is the situation with respect to the Americans -- the evidence that would establish it has not been released and cannot be independently verified. Indeed, the composition of the sarin not being of "military grade" says Richard Guthrie, formerly a project leader of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, simply reflects the fact that "there are a lot of different ways to make sarin," or that old sarin stock may have been used.

The central problem here is that the Russians are far from being an impartial party in terms of evaluating such claims. They posses a large and strategically important naval "facility" in Tartus, Syria. Tartus is the only remaining Russian military base outside the countries of the former Soviet Union, and its only Mediterranean repair and restocking facility, allowing Russia to replenish the warships of its Mediterranean fleet without returning to their Black Sea bases.

Moreover, as Richard Weitz (2010) points out in Global security watch - Russia: A reference handbook, by 1990 Syria had accrued a debt of $13.4 billion to the Soviet Union as a result of arms purchases. In 2005 Russia wrote off 73% ($9.8 billion) of this debt. The remaining 27% ($3.6 billion) is money the Assad regime is repaying Russia in return for further arms sales, as well as giving the Russians joint interests in oil, gas, water, and industrial projects in Syria. Thus, there are major Russian financial, military, and strategic interests in Syria and consequently the Russians have been amongst the most stalwart of supporters of the Assad regime. As is the case with American claims, in the absence of detailed evidence, one has to take Russian assertions with respect to Syria with a very large grain of salt.

For example -- and I emphasize that I am making no claims that such a hypothetical example is true -- imagine how internationally thorny and problematic it would be for Russia if evidence showed that some of the components of a chemical weapons gas attack (either the gas or the delivery or deployment mechanisms) were of Russian origin (i.e., part of the immense stockpile of weaponry that Russia has been channeling into Syria for decades)? Now, ask yourself, if Russia can be considered a disinterested party in evaluating claims of who deployed chemical weapons in Syria.

In contrast, American direct interests in Syria are minimal. Syrian oil production is relatively modest, 385,000 barrels of crude oil/day (in contrast to the massive oil production of both Kuwait and Iraq where the USA previously intervened militarily) and almost all of Syria's oil exports go to Germany, Italy, and France; none to the United States. If the recent Middle Eastern peace process being brokered by the United States progresses, at some point the US will have to actively engage Syria in terms of a settlement of the Israeli occupied territories of the Golan Heights (which would help clinch a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace deal), but it is far from clear how ousting the Assad regime might contribute to that since a successor regime in Damascus might or might not be less intransigent on this matter than the current one.

To strike or not to strike?

Might a "limited" American military "strike" against Syria accomplish something useful? It might. If the US could degrade the Assad regime's chemical weapons capacity, and/or its capacity to deploy its fighter jets and/or attack helicopters, which it has been using ruthlessly and indiscriminately against both Syrian opposition fighters and civilians, some of the terrible bloodbath that the Syrian civil war has become might be eased. The United Nations estimates that in excess of 100,000 people have been killed (as of June 2013) and that over 2 million refugees had fled the country (as of September 2013).

However, this is a very large "might." No matter how targeted, such strikes might result in very little improvement and might also result in the proverbial and euphemistically titled "collateral damage" i.e., destroyed infrastructure and the death of innocent civilians.

What such a strike (which United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, now says has the support of "double digits" of countries) would certainly do is bring US-Russian relations to a post Cold-War nadir. Russia argues -- correctly in my view -- that any such military strike outside of a United Nations Security Council authorized one, would be illegal. Although correct, it's also somewhat hypocritical given that Russian and Chinese vetoes have for years stymied the UN Security Council in terms of any meaningful action to staunch the Syrian bloodletting. Moreover, Vladimir Putin has emphasized that in the event of a military strike Russia "will help Syria" an imprecise, but nonetheless ominous, formulation that bodes ill for international affairs.

Hasan RouhaniFurther collateral diplomatic damage might also occur in Iran. Given the fact that an emphatic moderate, Hasan Rouhani, was recently elected as president of Iran, replacing the incendiary and erratic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the United States has been presented with its first possibility of diplomatic rapprochement with Iran in almost a decade. The Persian government has (along with Russia and China) been one of the main sources of aid and supply to the Assad regime (comprised as it is, largely of Alawites, a Shite faction close to the Iranian theocracy). Any military action in Syria is almost certain to significantly damage American-Iranian relations and impair the capacity of Rouhani to mend fences with the Americans and the European Union. Given American interests in curtailing Iran's nuclear program, and Rouhani has already given strong signals that he would like to re-cast the dialogue on the nuclear issue, and fears by the Israelis and many others that this program is directed towards developing nuclear weapons technology and capabilities, this would be a very significant loss for global aspirations for a de-escalation of nuclear tensions.

Moreover, under attack, would the Assad regime, attempt to spill the conflict into a regional war by launching missiles at Israel? Would American warships and the Israeli "iron dome" air defense system succeed in stopping them? Would Israel be provoked into responding? No one can know, but such scenarios are completely within the realm of possibility, and are consequently of considerable concern.

On this basis, I would venture that a cost/benefit analysis of a military strike in Syria would indicate potentially significant diplomatic costs in return for potentially meager tactical benefits.

How do we get out of here?

Whoever was responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attacks in Damascus, some 1,400 people are dead (the exact number is in dispute; the USA says 1,429; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gives 502; British intelligence estimates 350), joining 100,000+ of their fellow citizens who have already been killed in this conflict. Over 2 million Syrian citizens live in varying degrees of difficulty as refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq; countries, which are increasingly straining under the load of caring for such an exodus of refugees. And this doesn't even take into account the millions who have been internally displaced by this conflict, now waging for two and a half years.

Syrian refugeesThis bitter and bloodthirsty civil war appears poised to continue into the foreseeable future with the Assad regime fighting for its existence (i.e., if they lose, the Alawites will certainly lose all power, privileges and the vast graft that this brings at best; at worst they will be completely annihilated in a vicious anti-Alawite pogrom), and the Syrian rebel forces well-entrenched and variously controlling between 60 and 70 per cent of the country's territory and 40 per cent of its population. If Russia and China endlessly block multilateral action through the United Nations it seems increasingly clear that events will follow other channels. Indeed, the conflict has already spilled far beyond Syria, not only in regard to the 2 million refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, but also in regard to the movement of arms and supplies from various state and non-state powers. Aid comes through Turkey and Jordan to support the Syrian rebels, and through Iraq from Russia, China, and Iran to support the Assad regime. There are various Wahabi funded Salafist forces from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and elsewhere, in Syria fighting as part of Jabhat al-Nusra or in other jihadi and mujahideen groupings.

In recent decades, every conflict in North Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and the Balkans has seen attempts by Saudi-financed Wahabist elements to use the conflict to further their own puritanical, intolerant, dogmatic, and fundamentalist vision of Islam, and the Syrian conflict is no exception. In this regard the Syria is yet another shadow play between Saudi-financed Wahabist forces and the Iranian-financed Shite ones as each attempts to win influence within the Islamic ummah (community).

Syrian refugeesIs there a solution to the Syrian quagmire? Clearly it must come from some sort of multilateral process/forum that can exert an influence on both parties in the conflict. In my view this would involve an end to the current dictatorial regime; guarantees of safety and security for all elements of Syrian society (Sunni, Shite, Alawite, Ismaeli; Kurdish, Christian, Druze); and a pathway towards some sort of better, more-representative, and more-democratic system of government for the Syrian peoples.

If those aggrieved by the conduct of the Assad regime wish to pursue a path to exert pressure on it to end the conflict, there is a better option than a military strike (given the cost/benefit ratio outlined above). The Assad regime is currently subject to a large number of diplomatic, trade, financial, and military sanctions imposed by the European Union, the Arab League, the United Nations, the United States and several other countries. Nevertheless, these sanctions have produced a limited effect since they are being disregarded by Russia, China, and Iran who continue to re-supply and re-arm the Syrian government.

A large percent of supplies reaching the Syrian government (particularly from Iran and Russia) come either overland through Iraq or through Iraqi airspace. Despite John Kerry's attempts in March 2013 to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to halt them, the shipments have continued, providing a major lifeline to the Assad regime. Al-Maliki's Shite government appears unwilling to rile the Iranian Shite clerics and anxious to stick it to the Saudi Wahabists and the Qatari emirs (past and present) who have been funding the Syrian opposition.

Syrian RefugeesIf the Americans redoubled their efforts to get Iraq to halt military shipments to Syria through its territory and airspace, life would quickly become difficult for Bashar al-Assad. To a lesser degree the Russians could re-supply the Assad regime through the port of Latakia, however, the Assad regime would be very hard pressed in such an eventuality and pressure on Assad to reach an negotiated end to the conflict would thereby be significantly increased.

The American influence in Iraq is significantly diminished since their 2011 troop withdrawal from the country, however, rather than embarking on yet another perilous military campaign in the Middle East, the USA could try the carrot of diplomacy in effecting a resolution to the Syrian conflict, rather than the stick of potential military action. Will they do so? The last word goes to Bobby Zimmerman:

"But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late." – Bob Dylan

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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