Flashpoint in Syria

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Shahid M Amin

ALARM bells are ringing due to the combined US-UK-France missiles attacks on the morning of April 14, 2018 on targets in Syria that were allegedly involved in production and use of chemical weapons against the anti-Assad regime rebels. As usual, there are claims and counter-claims about what actually led to these attacks and how they were conducted. The background is that on April 7, an alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad regime took place in Douma near Damascus. Videos and images showed bodies of dead children and others, some foaming at the mouth. Local medics and media reported the death of at least 42 people, with hundreds of injured showing symptoms, consistent with exposure to organophosphorus compounds, linked with chlorine gas.
Damascus denied any involvement. However, the truth is that the Assad regime has in the past used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. A crisis point came in Douma in 2013. Then also, the Syrian regime backed by Russia denied involvement, but the UN investigation team concluded that it was extremely unlikely that rebel forces themselves had used the chemical weapons as they neither had access to such weapons nor possessed the missiles to launch them. The medical group ‘Doctors without Borders’ had also confirmed the same findings. President Obama had warned that use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” justifying US retaliation, but the Assad regime had nevertheless attacked Douma, killing 1,429 people, including 426 children. Obama then threatened military action but changed his mind at the last-minute. Russia brokered a deal under which Syrian Government handed over its chemical weapon stockpiles for destruction and also joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
This week’s US missile attack was justified by President Trump on the ground that Russia had promised in 2013 that it would guarantee elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. He said that “Assad’s recent attack and today’s response are the direct result of Russia’s failure to keep that promise.” Trump described Assad as a ‘’monster” and accused Russia and Iran of associating with mass murder of men, women and children. He said “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace.”
As the US prepared for military strikes in Syria, Russia warned against the consequences. It denied the regime’s use of chemical weapons and even accused Britain of staging a fake attack in Douma, but it provided no evidence to support this claim. When the attacks took place, Putin described them as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state that is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism”. He said that “the current escalation of the situation around Syria has a devastating impact on the whole system of international relations”. Putin also called for an emergency session of UN SC. Russian Ambassador Antonov warned that US action “would not be left without consequences.” The spokesman of Russian Foreign Office recalled that US had also relied on similar fake evidence when it invaded Iraq in 2003.
Despite these strong words of condemnation, it appears that Russia is not contemplating any military retaliation. Partially, this is due to the categorical statements by US military spokesmen that the missile attacks were a “one-time shot” and they had taken precautions to avoid any damage to Russian military personnel and installations in Syria. Britain and France had reportedly even advised Russia prior to the attacks that they would be limited in nature and targeted solely against chemical weapons facilities. The other reason for erstwhile Russian restraint is that it lacks the military weaponry to counter US missile attacks. While it has claimed that many US missiles were knocked down by anti-missile defences, it has not shown any corroborative evidence. US military spokesman Gen. McKenzie said he would pick three words to describe the US attack: “Precise, overwhelming and effective.” He said Syria had launched 40 surface-to-air missiles in an attempt to shoot down the allies’ weapons but that most of them were fired after the last Syrian target had already been destroyed. He denied that any US missiles were shot down. Another reason for Russian restraint could be that Trump has reaffirmed that the US “does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstances.” But he has threatened further strikes if Assad again uses chemical weapons.
In addition to the above, the Russian logic could be that the Assad regime has been gaining ground for many months with Russian and Iranian support. The US role in Syria has been marginalized: Trump is known to have told his military that the US should pull out of Syria. Hence, with or without the chemical weapons, the Assad regime has an upper hand. Russia has clearly made a comeback in the Middle East and its strategic interests in Syria including access to a Middle East sea-base have been assured. Unfortunately, the latest developments suggest that misery of Syrian people is not going to end anytime soon. There is no other case of a similar human catastrophe in recent times when a country has been so badly devastated by a civil war. The truth is that foreign intervention is mainly responsible for the Syrian tragedy. At the root is the cruel oppression of 70 per cent Sunni population of Syria by Assad’s minority Alawite regime of 10 per cent people. He should have been overthrown by the Arab Spring revolt in 2011 but for the intervention of Iran, which sent its armed personnel, together with Russia’s weaponry.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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