People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 10, 2013


Syria: War Plans on the Backburner


Yohannan Chemarapally


DOMESTIC and international public opinion finally forced President Barack Obama to shelve, at least for the time being, the plans to launch a military assault on Syria. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin’s deft diplomatic moves also played an important part in stopping yet another war from breaking out in West Asia. Till the beginning of September, President Obama had been insisting that the United States was justified in launching Cruise missiles on Syria, despite the United Nations rejecting any unilateral military action.




The first serious setback for the American president in his foolhardy ambition to find a military solution to the Syrian conflict was delivered by the British parliament in August which voted against the UK’s participation in the proposed war. An apparently unfazed American president had then said that the British rejection would not influence his decision. The French president, Francois Hollande, battling the dismal domestic political ratings, had become an enthusiastic drumbeater for western military intervention in Syria and was busy prodding his American counterpart to start military action forthwith. But public opinion in France, like in the US, was overwhelmingly against a military attack against Syria. However, the French president’s eagerness to launch a military attack was undermined by Obama’s late decision to get US congressional approval for military action against Syria. President Obama was finding it increasingly difficult to field accusations that the US air force was going to be used to aid the Al Qaeda and assorted Islamic groupings waging war against the secular Syrian state.


With the mood in the US Congress too generally being against a new military adventure in West Asia, President Obama was in search of a face-saver to get over his “red line” fiasco. The American president had determined that the Syrian government had crossed the so called “red line” he had set by using chemical weapons on its own people. His secretary of state too had gone ballistic, even comparing the Syrian president to Hitler. President Obama too made comparisons with Munich and World War II.


But the Syrian government has been vehemently denying that it ever used chemical weapons. The Syrian government, has, instead blamed the rebel forces for the attack. President Bashar al Assad categorically told the German weekly, Der Spiegel, in the second week of October that the government forces did not use chemical weapons. He expressed serious doubts on the UN report on the August 21 chemical attack. “No one can say with any certainty that rockets were used.” he told the magazine. The Russian government too said that Damascus has provided documentary evidence to prove that the chemical attack was the handiwork of the rebel forces.


Anyway, as many analysts and commentators have noted, it did not make sense for the Syrian leadership to order a chemical attack on a civilian area when a UN fact finding mission was in the capital to investigate an earlier chemical attack in Aleppo that was widely blamed on the opposition fighters. A report in the World Net Daily, a right wing American website on September 11, quoted from classified US documents in which “the US military confirms that Sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria.” The Syrian government was also not unaware that using chemical weapons was a sure fire-recipe for triggering western military intervention.




The Obama administration’s turnaround on Syria was apparently facilitated by a remark by the US secretary of state, John Kerry to the effect that the only way American military action could be avoided was if the Syrian government would hand over “every single bit” of its chemical weapons to the international community. The Russian government was quick to sense a diplomatic opportunity and managed to convince the Syrian government to announce that it was willing to give up its chemical weapons inventory under international supervision. President Vladimir Putin’s article in the New York Times in the same week debunked President Obama’s claim that the US because of its alleged “exceptionalism” was exempted from international law. Putin in his article underlined the impropriety of one country waging war against another country except in self-defence or with the authorisation of the UN Security Council.


Given the ground realities in Syria, the Obama administration decided to play ball and agreed with the Russian proposal. The two countries agreed in Geneva in the second week of September on “a joint determination to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons (CW) programme in the soonest and safest manner.”  On September 27, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution requiring Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons. Russia also saw to it that the resolution did not contain any threat of military action. The deadline for the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is the middle of 2014. The Syrian government has warned that international inspectors could be harmed by rebel groups as they go around the country. The rebels could then blame the Syrian government for any untoward incidents that could happen. “We’re very transparent. The experts can go to every site. They are going to have all the data from our government,” President Assad told Der Spiegel.


The hopes of countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel to prod the US into a war ended with that statement, at least for the time being. Not only that, the move helped the Obama administration to ease tensions with the newly elected government in Iran. Warm messages were exchanged between the American president and President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly meet in New York. Both these developments have been a setback for Israel and its de facto Muslim allies in the region. It was Israel which provided the alleged proof of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, first in April and then in August. Silvan Shalom, a senior Israeli government minister, reflecting the general mood in the Israeli government, recently observed that if Washington found “it difficult to do anything against little Syria, then certainly it is not possible against big Iran.”




Not only that, questions are now becoming louder about Israel own undeclared stockpile of chemical and nuclear weapons. Israeli authorities were feeling that the international community has done them a great favour by cornering Syria which, along with Iran and Hezbollah, is the only resistance force fighting for the Palestinian cause. But Syria has agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Israel had signed the CWC in 1993 but has refused to ratify the agreement. At the same time, it has been refusing to countenance the idea of a nuclear free West Asia.


The Syrian government, like the other states in the region, has been saying that their chemical weapons arsenals are the only deterrent they have against the nuclear might of Israel. Russian officials have been saying that Israel should follow Syria’s example and ratify the CWC. An article in the September issue of Foreign Policy magazine said a 1983 CIA report had suggested that Israel was developing a nerve agent at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev desert. The CIA document had said that Israel “undertook a programme of chemical warfare preparation in both offensive and protective areas.”     


Both Washington and Moscow have said that the recent breakthrough will help kickstart the Geneva 11 conference on Syria. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Syria, said that the decision of the government in Damascus to give up its chemical weapons was “a necessary step” for the convening of the Geneva 11 Conference. The Syrian government has been eager for political talks to start in order to end the cycle of blood letting that has been going on for three years now.


But the disunited rebel forces, aided and abetted by their regional supporters, have been reluctant to enter into any formal negotiations. They were waiting for western military strikes to put them in a militarily advantageous position. Since the beginning of the year, however, they have been put on the back foot by the Syrian army. The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, announced in the second week of November 2012 that it was due to the disunity in the ranks of the rebel forces that the Geneva talks which were supposed to be held in late November 2012 had been postponed. Brahimi said that he was still optimistic that the talks could be held before the year ends.


Syrian diplomats have said they are willing to talk to the legitimate opposition but not with terrorist groups like the Al Nusra, the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Ahrar al Sham. After the refusal of the US to act as their “air force,” the rebel groups including many, which were painted as moderate by the western media, have all ganged up and rejected dialogue as the means to end the bloodshed. On September 24, under the umbrella of a new “Islamic Alliance,” eleven rebel groups which have been doing most of the fighting inside Syria, rejected the American backed “National Coalition” and its military arm — the Supreme Military Council (SMC). John Kerry recently claimed that only 15 to 20 per cent of the rebel fighters are the “bad guys.” According to western media reports the so called “bad guys” are now in control of many towns in the northern and the eastern parts of Syria, especially along the border with Iraq.


In the Damascus area, 50 rebel groups have formed the Jaish al Islam army, dominated by the Saudi backed Lawa al Islam. The FSA, backed by the West, has now become even more of a paper tiger as the Jihadist, Salafist and Takfiri groups now completely dominate the armed opposition to the government. The Al Qaeda, in short, is effectively calling the shots in the armed struggle against the Syrian government, with the West playing a supporting role. “It seems that the West has more confidence in Al Qaeda than me,” President Assad told Der Spiegel. The Jaish al Islam leader Zahran Alloush, told the Al Jazeera network that the aim of the group is to resurrect the Umayyad Empire with Damascus as its capital and purge the Shiites, Allawites and other minorities from the land. President Assad has again reiterated that he is willing to talk to the legitimate opposition but not with the militant groups, saying that “by definition a legitimate opposition does not have an army.”