What is happening now in the Syrian dossier cannot be understood outside the general situation of the Middle East, as well as of the large framework of the foreign policy of the Obama administration. As it is known, last Wednesday – August 21 – news surfaced about the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, with hundreds of deaths among civilians – including women and children – in a suburb of Damascus, where heavy fights are waged between rebels and government forces. After the first news – confirmed by international organisations on site, ‘Medecins sans frontieres’ for example, but which could not indicate the authors – video records appeared showing terrible images. The rebels promptly incriminated the Assad regime as author, while Damascus authorities denied and accused the rebels. The international community reacted immediately and the chief of American diplomacy, John Kerry, had talks with counterparts in the region, including from Syria, demanding the immediate access of a UN monitoring team that was already in Syria, to the respective zone in view of establishing the responsibility of this act.
The United Kingdom asked a meeting of the Security Council, Russia and China opposed, France immediately called to military action, Germany initially opposed such an intervention in force and called to patience and the attentive observation of events. As can be notice, the Syrian dossier – not to forget that the Assad regime is supported by Iran and the terrorist organisation Hezbollah, and the rebels by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, also by other states – created real attitude gaps throughout the international community, the diverse positions of the main actors from the Mideast zone being the expression of the high volatility of the security situation here.
It is worth keeping an eye on the position of the USA in this context. On one hand, because Washington is the main artisan and custodian of the regional status-quo, its actions in the Mideast dating back since the years of the Cold War, when it kept the peace between Israel and Egypt at the end of the ‘70s of last century. One should also mention in this context the war waged and partly concluded by the USA in Iraq, neighbouring Syria, as well as the sponsoring by Washington of the present round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, the calls launched by part of the American political establishment for a force intervention in Syria date since the presidential campaign of last year and President Obama announced that a “red line” that would be trespassed by the Assad regime – namely using chemical weapons against the rebels – would be the point beyond which a military intervention would take place. This is why American planners presented at the end of last week to President Obama hypothesis of military action, if it is demonstrated that the August 21 event in the suburb of Damascus will be such a line crossed by Assad.
The situation with which the American administration is confronted now is very difficult. On one hand, a new military intervention in the Mideast, at a moment when two wars fought until now by the own military forces in the Wide Middle East are almost over, would come against the implementation of the grand strategy assumed along with the disengagement in this area and, practically, would represent a big step back. On the other hand, the American public is obviously hostile to a new military confrontation in this region and the military operation in Syria needs diplomatic preparation and military planning that cannot be done overnight (this is why, for instance, the hypotheses of action presented by military experts mainly refer to hitting with cruise missiles some Syrian governmental objectives, so one more destroyer equipped with such weaponry was dislodged to the Mediterranean Sea, besides the existing three). And the Syrian adversary is well equipped in military terms with anti-aircraft weapons provided through the years by Russia and threatened that any attack will have ample repercussions in the whole region.
These considerations however pale in comparison to what can be called the credibility of the USA as a superpower, in particular, of the legal reaction of the international community in general, when it comes to the infringements of international regulations. The absence of an international answer to the obvious violation of what President Obama mentioned to be a ‘red line’ in August 2012 that will draw the retaliation of the USA would send a negative signal both to the allies and to the adversaries of Washington. At the middle, besides the credibility of the USA ‘per se,’ stand the future evolutions in the region: the use of weapons of mass destruction can be used without fearing the answer of the international community, which would have incalculable consequences not only in Syria, but for the entire global system. How will this lack of answer be interpreted, other than as an encouragement, by the leaders of Tehran that race against the clock to enrich uranium and reach the critical threshold for the construction of the nuclear weapon? But the North-Korean leaders who see the survival of their own regime through a dangerous game on the brink of nuclear abyss? Obviously that the lack of an answer to the crossing of this red line in Syria – the use of chemical WMD prohibited by international conventions – would be an encouraging signal for other systemic actors to use this precedent and acquire unconventional weapons.
Delicate questions also rise in the case of such a military intervention. If such an action would topple the Assad regime, who among the rebel groups, where the jihadist ones pose the most aggressively, will fill the ‘power void’ in Damascus? Will such an action secure the destruction of the chemical weapons arsenal of the Assad regime, or these weapons were already disseminated in the territory and to loyal military units? More seriously, is there the slightest chance that such weapons entered, or will enter the arsenal of rebel groups in Syria affiliated with al-Quaida? And, as a matter of fact, who is the real author of the August 21 event?
Regarding this last question, there are several variants in circulation. As it can be suspected, both the Assad regime and the rebels accuse each other but, as it is the case in Mideast, diverse narrations are present. Israeli newspaper ‘Haaretz’ quotes four such different narrations in a recent article. The first and most credible is that of the political opposition in Syria, which incriminates the Assad regime, pinpointing the Syrian military unity and the moment when the area was bombed with chemical missiles, also mentioning the presence of a high governmental military official. The others refer to military units that escaped central control – such as that commanded by one of Assad’s brothers – or even factions of the Iranian military contingent sent by Tehran to support the regime, or units of Turkmen rebels that smuggled the sarin from Turkey and provoked the incident in order to spark an international reaction.
The UN inspectors that were eventually accepted by the Assad regime to monitor the site of the chemical attack established Monday, August 26 that such weapons have been used and a statement – not lacking ambiguity – of John Kerry the same day blamed it on the Assad regime. The starting moment of a military intervention decided in Washington under the mentioned form of airstrikes against strategic targets controlled by the Assad regime in Syria cannot wait any longer. The formalities related to legitimacy and the forming of that necessary ‘coalition of the willing’ in this direction are almost over (Germany, which was initially against the military intervention Monday, under the exigencies of the electoral campaign, already changed its position).
A capital question arises: what will happen in the near future in Mideast, as consequence of this military intervention in Syria?