Tuesday, 18 June 2013

SYRIA: Obama's red line & the Syrian Quagmire

The US may soon begin delivering weapons to the rebels in Syria. But the situation in the war-torn country is massively complicated with extremists seeking to take advantage of the situation on both sides.

It now appears that, thanks to Hezbollah's help, the Syrian military is retaking territory and might be able to tip the scales in this appalling civil war. And, last week, the US government confirmed what the British and the French have been claiming for weeks: that the Assad regime has also deployed chemical weapons against its own people. The Americans say that, as far as they know, this has only been done on a small scale, with several attacks having claimed between 100 and 150 victims. Nevertheless, they add, this has sufficed to cross the "red line" that President Barack Obama drew last August, when he said that America would intervene as soon as the Syrian military had used poisonous gas.

The Americans could now supply weapons -- rifles, ammunition and perhaps even anti-tank missiles -- to rebel groups, such as the semi-trusted Free Syrian Army (FSA). This prompted Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, to immediately strike back. On his Twitter account, Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of Russia's parliamentary foreign affairs committee, wrote that "the data on Assad's use of chemical weapons were faked in the same place as the lie about (Saddam) Hussein's weapons of mass destruction," suggesting that the Americans were using a fabricated pretext to be able to support the rebels.

On Saturday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the placement of anti-aircraft systems in Jordan to enforce a no-fly regime in Syria was a violation of international law. Russian President Vladimir Putin also attacked plans to send more weapons to anti-Assad rebels at a press conference in London ahead of the G8 summit. The Russian leader said that sending arms to people who '' eat theirs enemies' intestines in front TV cameras'' was against not only international laws but also against humanitarian principles.

The wrangling over Syria is one of the main issues discussed at the G-8 summit starting this Monday in Northern Ireland. The group's Western states must decide what they intend to do. The UK and France back the American position. And Russia continues to back the Assad regime and intends to supply it with a modern anti-aircraft system capable of shooting down even American aircraft. Iran has been sending a constant stream of supplies to Assad, and thousands of Hezbollah fighters have crossed over the border from Lebanon to reinforce his troops on the ground.

Even though the US has largely left the rebels in the lurch when it comes to military support, more and more Sunni Islamists, including groups affiliated with al-Qaida and jihadists from Chechnya, who have more combat experience than their Syrian counterparts, are helping out the Syrian rebels. The Chechens belong to the "Army of Emigrants and Helpers" under the command of a man named Abu Omar al-Shishani, with the last word meaning "Chechen''.  When it comes to states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided the insurgents with the most support.

Sources within the US administration told the New York Times how America might provide the rebels with assistance, saying that the CIA, rather than the military, would get weapons to Syria. Although these might include anti-tank weapons, the United States probably won't send anti-aircraft missiles, especially given the worries that they might prove dangerous to America itself should they ever fall into terrorist hands. FSA commanders cautiously commented on Washington's announcement about supplying weapons.

Hassan Aboud, the leader of an Islamist group cooperating with the FSA, reacted to Washington's announcement. "It is too late," he said. "We are now relying on aid from Saudi Arabia and on our own strength. We don't believe the United States anymore."

All elements of the opposition are united by the suspicion that the promised military assistance might only be a ruse. In their eyes, the pledge is meant to put pressure on Moscow in the run-up to the international peace conference postponed until July in the hope that it will prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon Assad.

The conference, co-initiated by Washington and Moscow, is supposed to take place in Geneva. In the best-case scenario, representatives of the Assad regime and the rebels could negotiate over a cease-fire there. This makes it crucial for each side to get the best position before going into the talks: Whoever has the upper hand militarily can make the most demands.

This situation is corroborated by a secret report submitted last week to European diplomats. The report says that Saudi Arabia allegedly intends to outfit the rebels with so-called "man-portable air-defense systems" (MANPADS), which are shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, such as the French "Mistral" weapon. Similar weapons already helped the mujahedeen triumph against Soviet forces during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Providing the lethal weapons to a decentralized Islamist Syrian opposition will ''do more harm than good''. Levels of violence will rise and Washington will be opening a ''Pandora box'' in this conflict in doing so. It seems to me that the US has not learnt from Iraq's war.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit AFP: Obama & Putin-G8 Summit Photo