Discovering Mena: Syria Is Still At War


[Ed. note: The opinions contained in this analysis are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Scoop Empire or the other authors on]

Everything suggested an American attack on Syria was imminent, until Putin and his five-star Foreign Minister made magic and amazed us all by buying Assad a little more time and brokering a chemical weapons handover deal that seemed to please all parties.

While never-ending debates about intervention were still invading the media and after the UK Parliament threw a bucket of cold water on the idea of a Libya-style Western-led operation, President Obama took the military option to US Congress, where he faced tough opposition in the Senate and was sure to lose in the House. That is, until the surprise US-Russia-Syria deal made the vote moot. The Hill breathed a collective sigh of relief and returned to haggling over domestic issues.

The Russians had already shout to the four winds that they were against military intervention, despite their having admitted the use of chemical weapons and their agreeing on the inadmissibility of such an attack. Regardless, the US retaliating with a bunch of missiles was not an option, responsibility to protect was not really at stake and it was nobody’s business to stick its nose in a strictly civil conflict.

Surveys across both the West and the Arab world made clear that a huge majority of most populations were against repeating the Iraq quagmire. Maybe the situation was different and the aim was not entering a war, but just the idea of foreign troops on Arab soil after 2001 and 2003 is still unbearable for many, who are understandably much more worried about unemployment numbers or education.

With that in mind (or not), Secretary of State Kerry seemed to back up a bit when he remarked that the Syrian regime may avert an attack if it gave up its entire arsenal of chemical weapons. Although Kerry’s comment seemed offhand, the Russians were swift to catch on and proposed exactly that as a solution.

In order to show its resolve, Damascus announced its decision to join the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention. And after three days of talks, a deal was reached last Saturday whereby Syria’s chemical weapons stash would be handed over to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons starting in a week and destroyed by 2014.

Most of us, aware of what a US attack could entail, were relieved. And Assad probably was too. He had (inadvertently?) averted confrontation with the world’s largest military by a whisker and had also managed to put all pressure on the international community, in particular on an organization which has up until now and for more than two years shown itself to be utterly incapable of stopping the killings of innocent civilians – that is, the United Nations.

It’s not as if the United States’ credibility being at stake was everybody’s top priority, but the fact that the sole remaining world gendarme has been mocked twice by a reckless rogue element like Assad should perhaps be considered a little bit worrying.

What’s Next?

Several loose ends should thus be tied in order to ensure Assad and his allies don’t get away with believing they can fool us all. First and foremost, Russia’s proposal should be backed by a UN Security Council Resolution. A text that would require Russia (and China) to cede on their undaunted stance of “after Libya you won’t get another abstention from us, guys; enough is enough”. A text that would endow the Russian proposal with much more (and desperately needed) credibility. A resolution that would make clear any kind of non-cooperation would mean legitimized retaliation on the part of the whole international community, not just the US.

Secondly, the Resolution should also contemplate an eventual political solution to the Syrian conflict. The international community should let the Syrian people know it is not just about the use of chemical weapons, that they also care about putting an end to the loss of life and destruction of families. Syrian rebels are already saying that such a move will not stop the killing, for Assad still has plenty of conventional weapons at his disposal and is merely trying to buy time with the help of the Russians.

Because some may consider a UNSC resolution to be mere words the wind will eventually carry away, a new framework (Geneva 2) might allow a reassessment of the situation and, above all, a diplomatic solution. Those involved may be able to shift their stances based on these new developments. They might even have to change their mind about Assad having to leave.

It is clear that Assad and others have (much) blood on their hands but, as the Middle East Peace Process has shown many times, immovable preconditions and peace negotiations are not good bed fellows.

On the other hand, and even if that deeply alienates both America and other key allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran (and thus Hezbollah) should be made part of the process one way or the other. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia and Qatar should realize they are not in a position to control the process, which exclusively belongs to the Syrians – to all Syrians themselves. Other countries should stand ready to intervene, but just as amici curiae.

Then there’s the so-called “rebels”. What to do with them? What to do with the Syrian opposition as a whole? One of the most sensible arguments against intervention was the jihadist threat: If Assad leaves, the argument goes, radical Islamists will be in control of Syria and will create a new fief for Al Qaeda and the likes.

On the other hand, it is clear that there is a real danger – a danger that, unlike what happened in Iraq, has been growing over time precisely because there has not been an intervention, because there was (and there still is) no credible, well-funded alternative.

Extremist elements have gained ground, funded and secretly backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And this is precisely why action should be taken, with the aim of preventing the radical wing from expanding. On the contrary, if Assad succeeds in clinging to power, then jihadism is also sure to thrive.

Alas, what looks even more unavoidable for Syria than an American attack is a future of uncertainty and instability. Ever since the onset, many had foreseen two not very attractive chaotic scenarios: a new Iraq and a new Lebanon.

Another alternative scenario at this point could be a process of “false” democratization spearheaded by Assad or anybody amongst his accomplices, a first step that may well end up in something resembling to the Spanish model, or may lead to renewed civil conflict.

Some analysis point to the Balkanization of Syria, i.e. the creation of three countries: one for the Allawites, one for the Sunnites and one for the Kurds.

Regardless of the specific characteristics of the future shape of what was once known as Syria, what is beyond doubt is that further polarization and fragmentation await for Syrian society, a society that was once renowned for its culture of cohesiveness.