Gordon Campbell on the risks of intervention in Syria
As Barack Obama considers the US-led response to the gas attack in Syria, the nuances of that response are getting more, not less difficult. How
do you concoct a response - an air strike - that will significantly hurt the Assad regime, but without tipping the
military balance towards the rebels, whose strongest military elements are virulently anti-American and anti-Western?
For all the outraged rhetoric being directed against the Assad regime, the last thing that Washington wants right now is
to cause the regime to topple, thus leaving the US and other countries with the hideous task of nation building - with
and against a Syrian opposition that is currently fragmented across an estimated 1,000 different militia, none of whom
have so far shown any ability or interest in providing the territories they currently occupy with the most basic of
human services. For these reasons, we’re talking about a token, symbolic bombing response in the coming days. One that
expresses the world’s displeasure, but which –cross fingers – doesn’t change anything significant on the ground.
The piece of finely tuned political theatre we are about to witness over the coming days will not get any easier if the
US chooses to wait waits until the UN inspectors have finished their work. Unlike Iraq in 2003 – where the UN inspection
was crucial to whether the threat from WMD existed at all – there is no doubt this time that an atrocity that breaches
international norms has taken place. Waiting for a UN mandate on the form of the response may be desirable on paper, but
the difficulty of deciding on the form of that response will be made no easier by waiting.
It would be helpful – and would justify the wait - if the UN inspectors could go beyond establishing that a gas attack
had occurred, and cpuld also apportion responsibility for who had carried it out. That’s very unlikely. In the last 24
hours, US Secretary of State John Kerry has been citing the Medecin Sans Frontiers report from Damascus as confirmation
of Assad’s guilt, but the report is in fact, not exactly forthright on this key point
“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,”
said Dr. Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the
events—characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the
contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would
constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological
At this point, the case against the Assad regime is a circumstantial one, but plausible enough, despite some misgivings.
As I said in yesterday’s column, the rebels had a strong motive that such an attack should take place – given that this
alone would trigger the kind of military intervention it has been clamouring for the West to provide for well over a
year. For the same reason, the Assad regime had a very strong motive not to carry out such an attack, lest that play into the rebels’ hands and benefit them militarily and diplomatically. With
that reality in mind, Russia has rallied to,Assad’s defence, and suggested that the rebels could have been responsible
for an attack carried out in an area they hold.
On balance though, Middle East expert Professor Juan Cole – who has been critical before of US policy in the Middle East
– believes that the more likely culprit is the Assad regime
I don’t find the ‘false flag’ narrative about the gas attack put forward by the Russians plausible. Rebel forces are not
disciplined enough to be sure of being able to plot and carry out a mass murder of the families that have been
sheltering them in East and West Ghouta and to keep it secret. How could they have been sure no one among them would get
cold feet and blow the whistle? Killing hundreds of women and children from your own clans would be objectionable to at
least some in any group of fighters. The fighters in Rif Dimashq are not the hardened Jabhat al-Nusra types. Besides,
capturing and deploying rocket systems tipped with poison gas is not so easy; even just operating them takes training.
Of course, this still leaves some room for doubt. Operatives from the likes of the fundamentalist Jabhat al-Nusra with
the necessary expertise and ruthlessness could have deployed to this area and carried out such an operation precisely
because it is outside their northern stronghold and where their clan allegiances would be irrelevant. But the more
plausible culprit is the Assad regime - desperate enough to defend a symbolic target like Damascus that it was prepared
to risk the international condemnation that (perhaps) it has already factored in as being more symbolic than
On Syria Comment, Joshua Landis has provided a string of reasons against military intervention on the ground, even if
this – ultimately – is the only way to protect the Syrian people from revenge killings and further atrocities. The
reasons include the inability of the US and the West to sustain the military, financial and strategic costs of the
nation building responsibilities that would inevitably follow. Intervention, he points out, would result in the US and
the West fighting the jihadis among the opposition, as well as the regime forces. Tipping the balance in favour of the
rebels would, he argues, create more suffering than it would alleviate. Thus the West is in the strange opposition of
needing the survival of the very same Assad regime that it is seeking to punish for the gas attack. Here’s part of the Landis argument
Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. The
government continues to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians with salaries & retirement benefits. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers
of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can
Most militias are drawn from the poorer, rural districts of Syria. Most wealth is concentrated in the city centers that
remain integral (such as Damascus, Lattakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Hama, etc.), which have survived largely unscathed in this
conflict, and have not opted to continue the struggle. If the militias take these cities, there will be widespread
looting and lawlessness which will threaten many more civilians who have managed to escape the worst until now.
Many in these urban centers have managed to continue leading fairly stable lives up to the present; despite the
tremendous level of destruction seen so far, many areas are still a long way from the bottom. It would be preferable to
avoid a Somalia-like scenario in the remaining cities and provinces.
It’s not at all clear that U.S. intervention can improve the economic or security situation for Syrians.
Entering the conflict would mean America battling on multiple fronts, not only against the regime: The U.S. has
declared itself at war with al-Qaida. If we were to intervene, we would have to enter a new front against the most
powerful and effective Syrian opposition militias, in addition to the war against Assad. Our forces would be targeted by
extremists and more radically-Islamist militias. We would be fighting a multi-front war.
The potential for ethnic cleansing and revenge killings is high: The different ethno-sectarian communities and
socio-economic classes are renegotiating the dynamics of their relationship inside Syria. For the last 50 years,
Alawites have monopolized the ramparts of power in Syria. They have allied themselves with other minorities and
important segments of the Sunni majority, and the regime has preserved its power through a careful sectarian strategy.
The rebellion, led primarily by Sunni Arabs of the countryside, aims to supplant the Alawite hold on power. The US
cannot adjudicate the new balance of power that will emerge in Syria. It is not prudent to dramatically tip the balance
of power in such a supercharged environment of sectarian hatred and class warfare.
Thus, the likelihood is an almost entirely symbolic action that Australia and – it seems – New Zealand –are being
invited to join. Bombing a few Syrian cities will achieve nothing. Bombing a facility that makes chemical weapons would
be ideal, but that assumes such a building can be readily detected and taken out. Wisely or not, the task the West has
assumed is one where it is seeking to weaken Assad – and thereby weaken its ally, Iran, which is the real target of
Israel and the conservative Sunni regimes in the region – but not weaken him to an extent where we help to replace Assad
with something very likely to be worse. It is a tricky decision facing Obama. This time, even the Pentagon doesn’t want
to get very involved.