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Syria: The chemical whodunnit conundrum
Publication Date : 05-09-2013
Scandal! Caught playing iPhone game at 3+ hour Senate hearing - worst of all I lost!"
That was a tweet from Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and former presidential candidate, after he was caught playing a game on his smartphone while his colleagues were seriously debating whether the US should attack Syria.
The US and some Western nations have turned up the rhetoric and want to up the ante in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Leaders of the US, the UK and France responded in the sternest manner possible to reports of a massacre of innocent citizens by chemical weapons near Damascus, only to pass the buck to their respective legislative bodies. The United Nations Security Council is also coming under pressure, but that body has been in a checkmate situation for quite some time.
The person with the worst job is US Secretary of State John Kerry who has been making the case for a US military reprisal in Syria. But he stumbled when asked by a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee if the US response could lead to "boots-on-the ground" in Syria. First he waffled, then meandered. He, perhaps more than anybody else in the US, knows that after two and a half years of civil war in Syria, the time for effective military intervention by the West has long passed.
There is no way to tell who the culprits were in the use of chemical weapons. The conventional wisdom postulates that it must have been President Assad. The underlying assumption of this "conclusion" is that Assad is the only one who has possession and is capable of using such weapons. The other assumption is that if the world can get rid of Assad, Syria will see the dawn of peace and the world could, with a clear conscience, turn a watchful eye to something else.
The on-the-ground reality of the Syrian civil war, however, is much more complicated than good-versus-evil, and the good-will-prevail-in-the-end scenario of Hollywood movies. After more than two years of brutal fighting, the war-torn country has seen an influx of transplanted fighters who are Islamic extremists from groups such as al-Qaeda. They are actually the ones doing the fighting in the name of opposition to the Assad regime.
It is almost too simplistic to assume that if the chemical weapons were used in areas outside of the government's control, it must have been the government who deployed them.
It could be viewed as an argument from a deviant mind to say that there is an equal possibility the chemical weapons were used by the opposition. And here are the arguments in support of that view:
First, while it is true that the chemical attack took place in an area outside of government control, it can be argued that precisely because the opposition could not reach terrain under the control of Assad's forces, they used it in areas outside of it.
Second, the most effective and fiercest fighters in Syria now are the al-Qaeda and Wahabi extremists. They are people who have no problem whatsoever with killing innocents or even themselves. Countless times before, their cohorts have wrapped themselves in explosives and blown up everything and anything in front of them. So why not this time, at least, to stir things up a bit, and for a "good" cause. For them?
Third, the West has unwisely drawn and declared a "red line" for military intervention - the use of chemicals or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This is the West's Achilles' heel as far as the Islamic extremists are concerned. Now the West is forced to take its own medicine.
We have heard tough macho talk from David Cameron, Barrack Obama and Francois Hollande - who in the end showed signs of wavering. But have we heard anything of the same sort from Israel?
Assad's Syria has not been such a terrible buffer zone between Israel and Iran. Suppose the West could topple Assad. Who will take his place? How can anyone be assured that his replacement would not be like Egypt's Mohamed Morsi who, while in office, did nothing to further democracy in his country, but everything to consolidate his grip on power?
Militarily, can the West's "limited" action in Syria accomplish anything worthwhile? How can the West be sure that such intervention would not help spread the civil war into conflict across the region?
As the world grapples with a "no-good options" situation, for a decorated war veteran like Senator McCain to choose to play a poker game on his iPhone during the Syrian debate was telling. He was very sceptical of Obama's war strategy in Syria.
Upping the ante may be a good ploy in poker, but in the case of intervention in Syria, the final outcome of McCain's poker game on the phone may also be telling: he lost.