Resolving Syria: Tomahawks or a Table?

The onus is on Obama: whether to give in to his allies’ urgings and attack Syria, or to bring forward the Geneva II meet

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

It appeals to common sense in the Middle East and the rest of the world that the civil war in Syria can end, whichever way, if the United States of America decides to intervene militarily. Till now, the US government has kept its hands in its pockets – at least publicly – and refrained from stepping in though it has specified the circumstances in which it would rethink its current policy. The recent massacre of about 1,300 people, allegedly in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus, threatens to change this hands-off policy if the war has truly crossed the red line that President BarackObama articulated last year.

There is, however, confusion over what Obama really meant. In this confusion rests the troubled fate of Syria. The big question now is whether the US and its allies would punish the Syrian government by raining a deadly arsenal of Tomahawks and Cruise missiles or wait for concrete evidence from UN inspectors about alleged use of chemical weapons.

On August 12, 2012, during a press conference at the White House, Obama provided the first indication of when he would change the way he perceives the crisis. It was during this press conference that he first used the concept of a “red line” and linked it to the usage of chemical weapons. His statement, that requires a revisit after a year of unending hostilities and wanton killings, never really suggested that the US would attack Syria if chemical weapons were used by the army against its own people. He said a lot more. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is when we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the President said a year ago last week. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

The interpretation by the Western media was simplistic, which claimed that the US would attack Syria if it found evidence that the Basher Al  Assad regime was gassing its own people. Whereas Obama lays down a broader principle – he talks of “other players on the ground”, who could also resort to the use of chemical weapons. Obama is surely not blind to the reality of the rebels being supplied with dangerous sarin gas or
other chemicals.

Ever since Obama made this statement, the Syrian opposition and its Arab supporters like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have given credence to the allegations that have been made from time to time that the Assad government has been using chemical weapons. A few months ago, the Israeli intelligence chief had mentioned that Assad had used chemical weapons. It was stated in a casual way, but the free Syrian army and its rich patrons began to indicate that the red line had indeed been crossed and the US should take matters into its own hands. The ardour of the rebels was dampened when an Italian UN inspector, Carla Del Ponte, accused them of using sarin gas. Ponte upset a section in the UK and France that wants a repetition of Libya and is keen that the US lead the charge again.

Since the botch-up in Libya, the US president has a more nuanced approach about how to countenance this troubled region. Although it is in a happy situation with all sides looking to it, it has refrained from being provoked by those who want to reshape the region according to their sectarian world view. Almost parallel to this rise in sectarian chauvinism is an aggressive movement to rebuild secularism in these Islamic societies. The blowback in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood is a case in point.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party that was voted to power in an election after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak was overthrown a year later by unprecedented street protests. On June 30, the Tamarrod movement, that had collected 21 million signatures, organized massive protests all over Cairo and other cities in Egypt. “According to Google maps there were 33 million protesters on the streets between June 30 and July 3,” said a diplomat.

They were blaming Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi for trying to Islamicize the country by changing the Constitution and feeding atavistic forces. Coptic Christians were the worst sufferers. While Morsi was in power, the police would look the other way, when the Brotherhood supporters would attack churches. Shias, too, were not spared. Although a small minority, there were cases of murder and violence against them even in Cairo. Women were perhaps most scared by the rise in influence of the clergy during the short period that Morsi was in power. He was supposed to run his party and the government like Turkey’s AKP, which is also an Islamic party, but Morsi was overtaken by the ideologues of the Brotherhood that were more keen on pushing the religious agenda than governance. Angry Egyptians wanted none of that. They were also livid with the US for supporting Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

What really happened after that is history, but the change in Cairo reflects the great churning that is taking place in the region. There is little clarity on how it will eventually unravel, but the happenings are seriously challenging existing notions of alliances between the Arab nations.

Since the botch-up in Libya, the US president has a more nuanced approach about how to countenance this troubled region. It has refrained from being provoked by those who want to reshape the region according to their sectarian world view

Witness the contradictions! The change in Cairo that upholds secularism has been bankrolled by the hardline Islamist state of Saudi Arabia. The country that has lost out is Qatar, described by its detractors as “30 people and a TV station”. Qatar was at the vanguard of the Arab Spring and had funded Morsi’s government. Qatar’s Sheikh was also funding the Syrian rebels for the better part of the two years of the uprising till the ground shifted. After the old Sheikh abdicated in favour of his son, Doha has been reassessing its foreign policy, which has meant ceding ground to the Saudis. Even Turkey has been chastened by these bizarre changes. Dubbed the “lonely man of the region”, Ankara was trying to help Cairo with advice and aid. It even gave garbage cans to clean up the capital. After the July 3 ouster of Morsi, Turkey and Egypt are at daggers drawn. Turkey’s contracts have been cancelled. Defence exercises that were to take place between the two countries have been postponed. Turkey is also facing domestic disquiet after the Taksim Square protests and trying to see whether it can earn some foreign policy success in its neighborhood. 

The survival of Assad, even after the Turks’ diplomatic and logistical support to the Syrian rebels, has lowered their profile. Prime Minister RecepErdogan and his AKP party’s efforts to recalibrate policy towards Syria by engaging with the Kurds and their leader, the incarcerated Ocalan, has not really helped. The Kurds in Syria are battling the Al-Qaeda-backed Al-Nusra brigade, which has resulted in hundreds of deaths. Al-Nusra allegedly uses the corridor through Turkey to enter Kurdish areas – a fact that rankles them.

Other changes in the relationships between various Arab nations are shaped by their relationship with preponderantly Shia Iran. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, threatened by its own Shia population, is lining up support from Sunni-majority countries. In its scheme of things, Egypt plays a major role as it has 30,000 troops based there. Saudi Arabia wants to break the alliance of Iran with Syria, Iraq and the Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, the Syrians live in apprehension about what is going to happen next. Their country has been ravaged by this sectarian war, which is unlikely to end any time soon, but what they fear now is the threat of death that will rain from the merciless Tomahawks and other missiles. The self-righteous statements coming from London and Paris about the imperatives of strikes against the Assad regime and reports about bombers arriving in air bases around Syria must be raising fears amongst Damascenes about their capital turning into a Baghdad. Assad has promised that the Middle East will become a ball of fire if the US attacks Syria. The Syrians insist that they have not used chemical weapons.

Will Obama withstand the pressure of his allies and refuse to begin the destruction of the ancient civilization that resides in Damascus and hasten the Geneva II conference, as agreed upon by the US and Russian foreign ministers?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2013