WILL SYRIA OVERCOME THE THREAT OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS TO ACHIEVE PEACE?

On April 7, 2018, several media outlets, citing Syrian militants, accused Damascus of using chemical weapons in Douma. In turn, Syria’s government (SANA) news agency reported quoting Syrian officials that these allegations were merely a provocation by the Jaish al-Islam (an al-Qaida offshoot, as are the al-Nusra and others operating in the Ghouta region) group and other militants to hinder the advance of the Syrian government’s army. Like clockwork, following the reports, President Donald Trump and his national security team began laying the groundwork for a possible military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. navy mobilized a destroyer, equipped with guided-missiles towards the Syrian coast.

It should be noted that as in every instance the Syrian government has been accused of using chemical weapons, there exists a peculiar logic. The incongruities are especially dazzling in the case of Douma. Firstly, we do not have independent observers who can assure us who has actually used any chemical weapons that are in possession of both the Damascus regime - which in 2013-14 had destroyed much of it with an international agreement - but also with the rebels. There are some rather garish contradictions. Radical Islamic groups have used chemical weapons against Syrian Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Not only. For the regime to use them on the cusp of total victory would make little sense: Damascus reached an agreement with the Saudi backed jihadists of Jaish al Islam, to evacuate the fighters and their families to Idlib.

The WMD ‘Ploy’
Regardless of the fact that some 500,000 people have died in the now seven-year old Syrian conflict, chemical weapons have become the arbiter of western intervention. It’s a convenient ‘tool’. In 2002 and 2003, the sticks used to beat the drums of war against Iraq were weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Given that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons in his arsenal, WMD really stood for chemical and biological weapons. Leaders in Washington and London, in particular, seem convinced that the horror of chemical weapons makes for an effective tool through which to persuade ordinary citizens that they must intervene – notwithstanding the disaster that was the Iraq ‘campaign’. In addition, in August 2013, then President Barack Obama laid down a red line, which, if crossed, would set the American war machine in motion against Syrian government targets. 

In 2015, the Russians entered the conflict, rendering any such American plan more complex. The Russian intervention has been the Syrian government’s ‘trump card’. It took a President Trump, motivated by a maniacal obsession with overturning the previous occupant of the White House’s every move. 

The Russians and Syrians have produced credible evidence that the chemical attack allegations are deliberately false – or highly mistaken and improbable. 

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW) continues – at the time of writing – to investigate the sites of the allege attacks. But, reporters including Robert Fisk of The Independent, entered Douma at least a week before OCPW inspectors (who regularly visit Damascus, maintaining a facility there). The veteran Middle East correspondent did not see any evidence of an attack. Seymour Hersh, in April 2017 dismissed previous chemical attack accusations against Damascus – on that occasion related to the attack against Khan Sheikhoun, near Idlib. Trump ordered an attack – largely symbolic – against the Syrian air base of al-Shayrat. Nevertheless, having launched an attack against facilities claimed to be storing or producing chemical weapons, including chlorine and sarin, the U.S., symbolically backed by the United Kingdom and France will not give up the WMD claims easily. Admitting a mistake would be akin to conceding President al-Asad victory. And, the United States has no intention of allowing the Syrian leadership to win. 

The U.S. and its allies in the war against Asad – including France, the UK, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and possibly Qatar (more on that later) – will exploit media campaigns about chemical weapon attacks by Damascus to justify external military action in Syria. 

It’s highly likely – if not certain – that the alleged chemical attack with chlorine (last year it was sarin) that, in light of questionable evidence, NATO (led by the U.S. and usual suspects of UK, France) has used to justify and compel the US to intervene against the government of Bashar al-Asad. The effort is to complete the step that Barack Obama did not take in 2013. Obama looked for all possible ways to avoid becoming embroiled in Syria in 2013. He was eventually ‘forced’ to act’ by allowing proxy forces to take the fight to Asad on the ground. 

Hundreds of thousands have died and over a million have become refugees. A direct U.S. hit against Damascus – presumably against government targets, something that remained a ‘forbidden’ fruit until April 8 – has opened the possibility for more. What are the chances that the United States will pursue more strikes against Syrian governmental forces without UN Security Council approval (Russia and China would veto any Resolution to attack)? 

The Deep State Has Trump in Check
Given precedents, (Iraq, Libya, etc.) the U.S. will have no hesitation of striking Syria without UNSC approval. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has made it perfectly clear that the U.S. is “not Russia’s friend”. The U.S. wants to please what the Administration – or better, the deep state (that is the conglomerate of security agencies, senators, House Representatives, lobby groups, Pentagon etc.) considers ‘friends’: Saudi Arabia and Israel for example. The Syrian War has been anything but a ‘civil war’. It’s a Dr. Jekyll laboratory for the new cold war, or world war, which has developed over the past few years. It’s not just about Asad, ISIS, the various Jaysh al-Islam and others. It’s even more about Turkey, the U.S.A, the Arab monarchies, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia. 

The West’s indignation over the civilians killed by chlorine and other means is even more hypocritical than the ability of its leaders to analyze. The UN would, as always, react with its customary supine apathy. The UN should have insisted for the OCPW and others to verify the facts in light of what Russian and Syrian inspectors have said repeatedly about the nature of the latest chemical attack: that it’s false. But, it does not matter. The West, led by the US, is looking for excuses to prevent Asad from completing his victory and rebuilding Syria. The UN can scream until all representatives are blue in the face: the decision to topple al-Asad was made years ago. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry has warned the United States – and allies - against any military action based on ‘fabricated’ reports, warning that it might have grave consequences. The issue that has everyone concerned is just how much of a critical deterrent effect it will have for the United States. After all, Syria is already an international conflict, a veritable miniature World War 3. The stakes involved are much bigger than the fate of Syria. 
Russia’s warning may influence the United States’ decision. But, it depends, who makes that decision. Trump still appears interested in letting go of Syria altogether. Barely a week before the Douma attack occurred, Trump clearly stated he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. In fact, some 2,000 U.S. troops remain in eastern Syria – supposedly to complete the mission against ISIS. The Pentagon, as the Secretary of Defense, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis has shown – with his reluctant concession to attack Syria on April 14, 2018 – seems cautious about Russia. 

It’s the so-called Deep State and forces, more aligned with the Democratic Party than Trump’s fellow Republicans (Some Republican senators like Rand Paul have reacted with fury over the latest U.S. attacks in Syria), which have put pressure on the White House to take action against Syria. Trump, eager to sweep off the Russiagate accusations, has fallen under heavy political pressure to ‘punish’ Russia. And Syria has become the territory where such punishments take place. Therefore, as long as Special Prosecutor Mueller pursues his investigation in to Trump associates, lawyers and family members, the U.S. president will be under pressure to act, essentially, in a way, which contradicts his campaign promises to focus on the United States rather than engage in foreign wars. 

The Russiagate Factor
Indeed, for Trump, Syria has become an issue intrinsically linked to Russia and Russiagate. And it won’t go away. U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia understand this better than anyone and they’re exploiting and using their channels to ensure Trump does not give into his instincts to pursue better relations with Russia. Yet, there’s another, and equally compelling motive now, driving the U.S. need to challenge Russia through Syria. 

The Americans and its allies like the Saudis and Israelis have suffered a major strategic defeat of incalculable proportions. They have failed to achieve their regime-change goal in Damascus, leaving Asad in power and Syria (and its Hezbollah ally) to serve as examples in the Arab world that resistance to the West is possible. Moreover, at the April 4 summit in Ankara, Presidents Putin, Erdogan and Hassan Rohani (in other words, Russia, Turkey and Iran) achieved a major diplomatic hit. They managed to pull Turkey away from NATO and into the Russian/Iranian camp on a key issue. Let’s not forget, Erdogan was one of the first to challenge Asad at the start of the so-called ‘Spring’ in Syria in 2011. It’s a bit like a mob war now. If the U.S. doesn’t give Russia ‘a bloody nose’ over this, it will look weak in the Middle East. 

Therein lays the West’s rather Hamletian dilemma that has unfolded in Syria. And it does not bode well for establishing peace – even as it could technically be at hand, if the U.S. and its proxies were willing to admit defeat. Certainly, as an unusually blunt – for a UN official - UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in an interview with Swedish SVT broadcaster: the UN will not solve the problem [in Syria]. And, of course, how could anyone be so naïve as to think that, given the deep divisions in the Security Council.

The United States and its allies have only one solution to the conflict in mind; it does not include the current government of Syria. Regime change is their aim, no matter how they dress it up. Trump appeared to be ready to concede ‘defeat’ of the NATO/American goals. When he did, we got the Douma ‘chemical attack’ and just like Don Corleone in the Francis F. Coppola movie ‘Godfather III’, he and the Americans were pulled back in. Guterres in diplomatic language has admitted the UN cannot do anything of value. The complexity implies there are no easy solutions; and that the West cannot dismiss the Asad government, thanks to Russia and Iran, ‘a priori.’ Still, as complicated as the U.S.-Russian (and Saudi, Israeli) differences might be, there are additional geopolitical considerations that reach far beyond Syria, which make NATO relinquishing Syria - politically and militarily – complex. They have something to with Brexit, for example. 

Great Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) has left France as the top military power in the European Union. It’s the one that can claim having been on the winning side in 1945 (Vichy not withstanding). While the U.S. has set up nuclear missiles in various NATO member countries (Italy for example), France is the only one with its own nuclear arsenal. There’s no doubting that Macron’s participation in the air attacks against alleged Syrian chemical weapon laboratories on April 14, 2018 was meant to deliver that message of ‘leadership’ to the rest of the EU. France feels stronger now and will play a more obstructive role in the Security Council to show how well it understands the ‘burden’ of that leadership. The puffed up France may prove a bigger obstacle to a resolution in Syria. 

Now we have John Bolton as Trump’s security adviser, not exactly champions of international compromise. And of course, Mike Pompeo, who will surely be the architect of the demise of the Iran 5+1 nuclear deal. 

Clearly, limited prospects exist for a diplomatic solution to emerge from the sharply divided Security Council (and beyond) over Syria. 

There’s Always Astana?
If Syrians should not look to the UN Security Council (SC) for the solution to problems faced by Syria, could the Astana talks have a better chance of achieving a peace settlement?

The Astana peace process is the only one where radically different positions can be debated – in the way that they are not in the Security Council now. In the Syrian war scene, Russia and Iran are on the same side, alongside the government led by President Bashar al-Asad. But, Turkey, strongly opposes Asad. The Syrian president even sent his forces to fight alongside the Kurds against the Turks in Afrin. In Astana, however, the governments of Iran, Russia and Turkey (NATO’s second largest army) continue to work to find a joint effort to reduce violence on the ground. They also agree that the territorial integrity of Syria cannot be compromised. That means no breakup of the country, as the U.S. and its allies seem to be hinting – and certainly no full concession of the Golan to Israel. The Astana process is what the Security Council could/should have pursued. And, of course, there are few chances the SC would recognize Astana.

Presumably, there’s no organization can replace the Security Council to solve problems in Syria. Any organization needs international agreement and if such agreement cannot be achieved in the most international setting of all, the UN, then there’s no point. Even if the more moderate players of the EU played a bigger role, Italy, Spain, Greece within a Euro-Mediterranean context (there is an organization called EUROMED after all, which included Syria), they would still face the opposition of France; even if, they would also be far more agreeable to a Russian and Iranian led initiative. Most of the EU wants better relations, political and commercial with Russia and Iran. They also want a more stable Mediterranean, even as they would continue to stumble on the same obstacles. Indeed, the Astana Process in many ways reflects the views – even if unstated – of the majority of the EU member states.

Meanwhile, another ‘solution’ would see Saudi troops replace U.S. ones in Syria. This would allow Washington to extricate itself from Syria, averting any incident leading to a direct conflict with Moscow, while still keeping pressure on Asad. At the time of writing, the Saudis have made Qatar an offer it can’t refuse, which could expose even deeper fault lines in the Middle East. Riyadh has demanded Doha – relations with which, you’ll remember, are in terrible shape - pay for the American mission in Syria, or send troops on the ground – compromising the improved relations with Iran in the process. The Saudis’ demand came as Trump's suggested the U.S. might stay in Syria if the Saudis paid for the mission. In other words, the Saudis have no intention of allowing any stabilization and reconciliation to take place.

The Americans, for their part, have little room for maneuver. The reason is Iran. 
If historians were to determine a single explanation, a casus belli if you will, for the now seven year war in Syria is might come down to Iran. The war in Syria has been, overall, an effort to smash the Shiite axis that would inevitably rise from the alliance of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Saudis – and ironically the Israelis, who find themselves in the odd position of pursuing the same objectives as radical islamists - lead the Sunni axis. Their proxy militias in Syria have lost. But, now, it seems it’s the actual Sunni armies, which are going to come out. Russia will likely equip Syria with its latest S-300 or S-400 anti-missile defense systems. Of course, Israel’s uber-hawk minister of foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, has already threatened to attack Syria, should such equipment be deployed. And then there’s the Turkish wild card. Turkey, an ally of Qatar, might intervene in its place – if only, it had not signed on to the Astana deal. 

The war in Syria, plainly, isn’t over. Given the various regional and U.S coordinated intrigues, the Russians cannot leave Damascus alone, expecting to find Asad in power the next day. Iran could, likewise, apply far more pressure on Riyadh through Yemen. And then there’s the high likelihood that Trump will scrap the Iran nuclear ‘5+1’ deal. That would leave Tehran free to pursue nuclear research for military purposes and without monthly inspections. If the Americans don’t attack the Bushehr nuclear facility, the Israelis with Saudi encouragement, will. Let the fireworks begin. 

Alessandro Bruno