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6 September 2013, Gateway House

Syria: An unwarranted intervention

Despite rising international opposition, U.S. President Barack Obama is ready to penalise the Syrian regime for an alleged chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, last month. The justifications given by the U.S. for an armed attack are questionable, and such retaliatory action will destabilise the entire region

Professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

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The United States, with only France and Turkey left amongst its NATO allies, is poised to “punish” the Bashar al-Assad regime for an alleged chemical attack on 21 August in the Ghouta, a verdant farming community east of Damascus.

The media spin suggesting a focused strike not exceeding a couple of days, to “hurt and not overthrow” Assad, is facile. Also given short shrift is Assad’s denial that his regime was responsible, or a U.S. military expert’s view that Israel possibly undertook a ‘”false flag” operation to implicate the Syrian regime. The UN Inspectors’ report will only pinpoint whether chemical weapons were used (which the world by now recognises), but not the perpetrator – this is tailor-made to allow any sort of conclusion to be drawn.

President Assad has stated that after this premature orchestrated campaign, without the benefit of the UN Inspectors’ report, the doctored conclusion can be expected to suit western compulsions to remove him.

U.S. President Barack Obama appears to be ready to go ahead without a UNSC mandate, without heeding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cautionary exhortations asking the U.S. to share evidence of Assad’s wrong-doing, and despite mounting international opposition. The thumbs-down by the British Parliament was a setback to the Americans, who are used to taking British support for granted.

As Commander-in-Chief, Obama has the authority to wage war, but he has kicked the ball to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, seeking authorisation for the strike. He has secured the support of the House Speaker John Boehner. Despite support from other big guns in the U.S. Congress, it is possible that U.S. legislators, especially the Republicans, will throw the ball back with a conditional authorisation. The decision will revert to Obama, leaving him with little choice but to act and face the consequences.

At this point, Obama’s decision appears to be motivated by the need to avoid being seen as “crying wolf” – it was a year ago that he first said, then frequently repeated, that the use of chemical weapons is a U.S. “red line.” It could also be a pretext to restore the tilted military balance on the ground between weakening western-backed rebel groups and the resurgent Syrian Arab Army (SSA). The U.S. move could also serve as a warning to Iran, lest it disregard U.S. threats against its nuclear ambitions.

But President Obama’s planned action goes against both legality and international norms. The Syrian regime has not abdicated its sovereignty and still is in control of the country and its main institutions: The three million-strong Ba’ath party, the equally strong trade unions, and the SSA. With its obstinate refusal to give up, unlike the Saddam and Gaddafi regimes, even after three years of relentless onslaught by regional proxies, the Assad regime is unlikely to now buckle down.

The ongoing civil war in Syria is an internal armed conflict much like the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan army. An armed attack by third states without UN Chapter VII Action (with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression) cannot be justified.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has vehemently denied that government forces used chemical weapons. He has said that the area is under the control of the SSA and there is no reason why they would attack their own people. Experts say, and Russia agrees, that the SSA’s success in flushing-out operations against the rebel groups around Damascus have led the powers backing these groups, like France, UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to create the current situation. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have now offered the U.S. launch facilities for its action. Yet, even the Arab League, increasingly a western mouthpiece, has sought a UNSC mandate.

The U.S.’s justifications are questionable: First, humanitarian intervention or the “responsibility to protect” the beleaguered Syrian population. As in earlier cases, such as the NATO attack on the Milosevic regime in 1994, Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998 or NATO’s UN-mandated aerial action against the Gaddafi regime in 2011, it is certain that U.S. action will lead to a large number of civilian casualties, wide dispersal of toxic gases and damage to property. It will mean greater insecurity for the Syrian people, and an adverse impact on regional security, weapons movements, and border instability.

Second, enforcing adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has not signed. This goes contrary to the action threatened against Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to stop its nuclear programme. Whichever way one looks at it, the U.S.’s proposed armed action against Syria remains unlawful and creates an unhealthy precedent for the future.

Worse, the U.S.’s armed action seems to be ad hoc, without clear objectives or outcomes. It demonstrates a high degree of aversion in the Obama administration, and its NATO partners, to confront a post-Assad scenario comprising fractious, armed, incoherent and radical rebel groups, like the Jabhat al-Nasra; and the inevitable pulling in of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel into the melee.

With the civil war spilling over into occasional skirmishes on the Turkish and Israeli borders, those countries could well also construe the increasing flow of refugees as a cause for armed action. Besides, U.S action could provoke an Iranian response through the Hezbollah against Israel, bring out in the open Israel’s support of rebel groups, and further exacerbate sectarian violence within Syria.

U.S. armed action will threaten Syria’s existence as an independent state and unleash forces which will spin outward into the volatile region. There can be no illusion that the U.S. attack will bring relief to Syria’s vulnerable population or speed the end of the civil war. On the contrary, it will fuse the area of violence in West Asia with that in Egypt, and escalate the level of regional insecurity, which can affect the Gulf countries as well. A greater stream of refugees and an adverse impact on crude oil production and delivery could also be the result.

Instability in Gulf oil sources and fear among the Indian diaspora in the Gulf will immediately impact India’s payments position, and possibly force measures to evacuate Indian nationals. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh goes to the G-20 Summit, India must firmly articulate its opposition to the U.S.’s proposed unilateral and unwarranted intervention and stand with Russia and China in a growing crescendo of worldwide opposition.

The goal today must be an end to the mounting humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by reviving the still-born U.S.-Russia Geneva initiative for a political dialogue and creating a momentum away from violence and sectarian strife.

Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar is Chairman, Kunzru Centre for Defence Studies and Research, Pune, and Visiting Professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S.

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