Sunday July 29, 2012
Fighting a war without winners
BEHIND THE HEADLINES
By BUNN NAGARA
With local and foreign forces aimed against Syria’s government, it cannot claim victory — but neither can anyone else.
SYRIA’S drift towards the edge has quickened to a flow, carried by undercurrents sponsored by Western and Arab forces.
The motley crew of an armed opposition, comprising political rebels, terrorist elements and thugs, lack resounding credibility and a unity of purpose and strategy. Government forces remain strong, if weakening, as rebel forces advance and boast further gains.
One measure of President Bashar Assad’s quickening decline is his military’s choice of weapons: from tanks to helicopter gunships to, since a week ago, fighter jets. Would ballistic missiles be deployed against rebels next?
Although rebel groups fronted by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have less credibility than they would have liked, Assad’s government may claim even less following reports of heavy civilian casualties. Anti-government forces may be well-armed but have the luxury of counting themselves as “civilians”.
When government forces respond with heavier weaponry, they discredit themselves further internationally. Assad’s war prevails on multiple fronts simultaneously: militarily, psychologically and in terms of image credibility.
State forces remain defiant, despite some defections. But the tide continues to turn as endgame approaches.
In the 16-month uprising, violence focusing on Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib and Homs surged last October and again this month, as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent considered the country in a state of civil war. Beyond the battle zones, the issues and circumstances are familiar enough.
The largely Sunni Arab League and the United Nations repeat high-minded ideals, although the League’s undemocratic regimes have long despised Shi’ite-derived Assad family rule while the UN’s position forces it to take sides. Those anomalies have not diminished their eagerness to replace Assad with some unknown quantity.
The US and Israel maintain a lower profile than their actual (covert) activity, for public relations and some uncertainty over the consequences. Similarly, that has not doused their enthusiasm for regime change.
The international (Western) media is stacked against Assad’s rule over his proximity to Iran and a consequent “distancing” from Israel and the West. With such odds, plus a growing rag-tag band of militants in the FSA and its allies, Assad’s “days are numbered”, as the Arab League put it.
China and Russia had warmed to Kofi Annan’s peace plan to end the violence by offering Assad a face-saving exit while allowing Iran a role. That was an alternative to the British-led Western plan of squeezing Damascus with sanctions and continued fighting.
Predictably, the Western media focused on China and Russia as stubborn intransigents over the (Western) proposal. There was relatively little reference to the Annan initiative that the West effectively rejected, despite general declarations of support.
In such a predicament, Assad’s government would be tarnished whatever it did or said, or did not do or say. A Foreign Ministry official’s statement last Monday illustrates the point.
As rebel forces edged towards the heart of government in Damascus, speculation swirled about the prospect of military arsenals falling into the hands of dubious anti-government groups like al-Qaeda.
The same fears had gripped observers over a similar prospect in Pakistan, but Syria was much more advanced in falling to armed militants. Israel and the US were particularly vexed.
Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi then volunteered an assurance that Syria’s major weapons systems were adequately secured, whatever the contingency.
He underlined that no matter how serious the rebel threat, the government would not unleash deadly weapons in local battles.
Then he added that biological and chemical weapons would be used only in national defence against foreign attacks. But instead of being assured, Western critics immediately went on the offensive.
Makdissi forgot one thing: nobody outside Syria, indeed nobody outside Assad’s circle in government, was supposed to know that Syria had biological or chemical weapons.
The Western media pounced. The ministry statement had only confirmed the long-held suspicions of Western hawks.
Media reports and commentary went into “Aha!” mode and said the statement was proof that Syria had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Some went further, saying that Syria was making ugly threats against the West.
But if there had been any threat at all, it was only against countries trying to invade Syria. Makdissi’s statement was thus only an affirmation of a sovereign state’s right to national self-defence.
In the universal context of such rights, legitimate self-defence is no offence. A foreign military attack on Syria may also incur more casualties on the ground than self-defensive action, even with chemical weapons, against designated attackers.
As soon as Western-based reaction weighed in against the statement, Damascus scrambled into damage control mode. It tried to reel in the statement by adding the words “if there are any such (biological and chemical) weapons” in a revised statement, but it was too late.
Western governments and the media had already gone to town on that revelation: fudging the issue only made Damascus look worse. Yet just one day later, Israeli military chief Lt-Gen Benny Gantz acknowledged that Syria had indeed taken additional measures to secure its chemical weapons stockpile.
For generations, Syria’s problem has not been about someone winning the battles of any war, but about anyone ever winning the peace afterwards. Israel today is more worried about the fate of Syria’s biological and chemical weapons than of its government.
Nobody would say it would use or not use certain weapons under certain conditions, if it had those weapons. Such an inconceivable utterance is neither sensible nor coherent, signalling only the flustered and confused nature of Assad’s government.
And yet, to the foreign ministry at the time, the statement made perfect sense. Such weapons in any country were clearly intended against foreign aggressors, and an assurance of securing them seemed needed at the time.
But once the statement was issued, comments flew around the globe about the desperate and terminal nature of Assad’s rule.
Those seeing it as a tough warning against foreign military attack condemned Damascus further, likening it to Saddam Hussein’s threat of unleashing “unconventional weapons” when a US invasion of Iraq seemed imminent.
Yet in moments like these, critics tend to give too much credit to a government in rapid decline. Assad and his comrades-in-arms, hemmed in by an advancing FSA and its allies, are far more likely to make verbal slips than to finesse nuanced diplomatic statements.
Still, it did not take long for hawks of every political persuasion to argue that Assad’s Syria had become ripe for invasion.
It seemed that the prospective invaders, having had some practice already as “veterans” of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, could readily do it again.
However, there is a crucial difference between Syria now and Iraq then: Saddam had no WMDs, whereas Syria apparently has. The US and its allies had called Saddam’s bluff, probably because they already knew he had no WMD deterrent, so they just waded into Iraq.
But the world today has changed, particularly after a recession and a Europe on the downturn. How would Assad’s WMDs weigh against a US with a weakened economy and further compromised by the Afghan and Iraq conflicts?
If Damascus had the capacity to fashion veiled threats, it could have done so. And if Western powers had the capacity to learn from past mistakes, they should do so as well.