Today it is very clear that Syrian Arab Republic is one major victim of the great power rivalry in the international politics and probably the first major theatre of the new cold war. The protests started with the limited objective of establishment of democracy in March 2011’s Syrian version of the “Arab Spring” has turned into a non-ending civil war. This civil war has divided the country physically into different zones controlled by different armed groups belonging to different sects or having extra territorial loyalties to different countries such as USA and Turkey. The balkanised state of Syria has seen the emergence of multiple stake holders where apart from the Assad regime no one else has a clear cut legitimate agenda to follow hence the conundrum. The April 7 Chemical attack on Douma (Eastern Ghouta) and subsequent air strikes on April 14 in different parts of Syria by the USA, UK and France adds to this conundrum. The slogan of saving innocent lives looks like an excuse to weaken the attempt of the regime to end the civil war soon. How is that saving the innocent lives?
The Civil War and Its Impact
This civil war has destroyed much of the Syrian economy and most of its 20 million people have seen a massive fall in their living standards due to the constant unrest. The total number of dead is over 4.5 million with over double of that number injured. Around half of its total population (around 12 million) are displaced in this unnecessary and futile war of over 8 years now. This displacement has created a massive refugee crisis in the region and in Europe. It is estimated by the UNHCR that out of total 12 million displaced in Syria around 5.5 million have migrated to neighbouring and European countries. This massive killing, displacement and pauperisation of Syrian people is a result of imperialist interventions into its internal affairs.
Syria was one of the most politically stable countries in the Arabia before 2011. The Ba’th party regime established by Salah Jadid in 1966 and subsequently ruled by Hafiz al-Assad and now by his son Bashar al-Assad, is supposed to be authoritarian in nature. Most of the political opposition was either tamed or exiled and yet the regime was able to create a working legitimacy through alliances across the religious sects and patronage across the classes. The stability of the Shia Alawi led regime in a predominantly Sunni population was possible because of a clever use of the policies of patronage, alliances among major minorities groups such as Christians and tactical use of force when necessary. The legitimacy was also inculcated on the careful balancing of the image of Syrian regime as a sole resisting power in the region to the Israeli dominance and occupation of Palestinians and imperialist projects of the USA. Syrian regime was also able to built powerful and reliable alliances with Iran and Russia and non state actors like Hezbollah to guarantee some kind of strategic depth in the international politics. The reason that Syrian regime is the only regime still surviving the uprisings started in 2011 hints towards the success of these complex political decisions and moves. The Syrian regimes’ resilience to the combined hostilities of Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, UK and the USA along sections of Sunnis at home, was one of the remarkable cases of maintaining political stability without much bloodbath.
Syrian economy was never a significant one in the region. Unlike its eastern neighbours it lacked any useful deposits of oil and gas. Its economy survived on remittances, tourism and agriculture along with occasional economic aids coming from friendly countries. Attempts to diversify the economy in the 1990s did work for a while leading to the rise of new middle classes with lot of political aspirations. The mass support to political movements for democracy and liberalisation of the political system in the wake of 2011 movement could be traced backed to the youth of this class. However, one should not forget the role of sectarian opposition in such mobilisations given the long history of hostilities between the Alawis and Sunnis and the crucial support they got from countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Once the Arab Spring protests started in the country and the Syrian regime used disproportionate force to curb them the political stability started crumbling. The massive media coverage and outrage against the brutal repression provided the political opposition an opportunity to mobilise forces against the regime leading to a significant defection from the state army and the formation of Free Syrian Army in July 2011. In the beginning it was expected that Syrian regime will sooner or later fall to international and domestic pressures just like the regime in Egypt and Tunisia did. However, the government in Syria was able to hold its power for long enough to see the turn of the tide. The attempts to delegitimize the political dispensation in Syria soon failed due to three main reasons; first, the rise of extremists forces among the opposition which was seen by the minorities such as Christians, Alwais and Kurds in particular as threat, second, explicit foreign support to such forces by the USA and its allies in the region and third the divisions among the opposition on sectarian and ideological lines.
Their entry of first al-Qaida and then ISIS in the Syrian conflict delegitimized the opposition led by Free Syrian Army. It also led to temporary backing off of the international support to it. In fact the USA started funding the Kurdish militias fighting against the ISIS in Syria which took away a huge pressure from the Syrian government forces. Meanwhile, Russian and Iranian interventions on behalf of the regime in Syria helped it to regain some of the lost territories. Since 2015 it seemed that the civil war would come to an end in most of the parts of Syria. However, in the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS and coming of Trump in power in the USA that hope has died down. The so called international community has suddenly awakened to the use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian regime.
The Chemical Weapons and External Intervention
In the latest development Trump led US administration along with United Kingdom and France launched air strikes to different places in Syria on 14 April killing several more in the name of protecting Syrian people from further Chemical Attacks. They claimed that on 7 April Syrian government forces used chemical weapons to kill 43 people in the opposition held areas of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta. Apparently, this is the only major area in the western parts of the country which is still under the direct control of the opposition and Syrian government is putting all its efforts to free this territory. We should know that Eastern Ghaouta is close to the capital Damascus and Syrian government sees opposition control over the region as a direct threat to its authority and sovereignty. As if now other regions under the opposition control in Syria are Idlib (near Turkish border) and a large part of North-East controlled by the Kurds fighting against the ISIS.
The USA led attack on 14 April 2018 was not the first attack in Syria in the name of chemical weapons though. The first incident of the use of chemical weapons was recorded and reported in August 2013 but it was soon forgotten. Though this paved the way for Syrian Regime to join Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was last year in April when the use of chemical weapons became an international rallying point against the Syrian regime in Khan Sheikhoun. Around 80 people were supposed to have died in that attack leading to first direct attack on Syrian base by the USA. Syria being the signatory of the CWC meant that it had to destroy all such weapons in its possession. The regime also agreed to allow international investigation in the case of any suspicious attack. In the wake of this, Syrian regime has continuously denied that it has ever used chemical weapons against the opposition forces. It claims that all such attacks if at all carried by the opposition forces to delegitimize government’s attempts to regain its territories and establish the rule of the law. In the 7 April incident the government has given the same argument. Even the media coverage about the claims of the use of chemical weapons was not conclusive and mostly speculative. The mandatory investigation under the CWC was yet to happen with the investigators waiting in the Damascus. In the given context the speed with which the US and UK governments came out with their own reports holding the Syrian government responsible for the attack with full of questionable claims and inconclusive arguments arouses suspicions about their stated motives. One of the explanations suggested by some commentators for this haste unilateral action was related to the failure of UN mechanism in charting a collective course of action due to disagreements between the USA and Russia over the issue.
In international law all such attacks are illegal and unjustified acts of aggression against the sovereignty of the state. There are international regimes of humanitarian intervention. The doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) adopted by the United Nations in 2005 according to the chapters XI and XII of its charter provisions. It provides the legal basis for international intervention by the member countries in cases of grave dangers to human rights. But such acts need clear approval of UN Security Council. The desperate move to avoid such legal procedures by the USA and UK is a sign of their attempt to sideline Russia and China as both of them have veto powers with mostly different set of interests. It seems when it comes to the protection of human rights all the veto powers have their own definitions of it and they pick and chose the cases according to their own calculations of interests. In case of human right violations of Palestinians in Israel for example none of these countries ever raise the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). In a lawless situation when Syrian regimes looks like winning the battle it needs all kind of international support or minimum hostility from great powers. It sounds foolish strategy to use chemical weapons and invite the wrath of public opinion and air strikes for any regime in this condition. The possibilities of rumoured or actual use of chemical weapons as a tactical move by the opposition in Syria should also be weighted particularly when perceptions are important to decide the fate of the war.
In the absence of any such patient hearing we can only conclude that the traditional hostility against the Assad regime and calculations of possible strategic gains in the region for its allies motivated the USA to repeat its Iraq tactic of waging a war on the basis of perceptions. Maligning the image of the regime and propagating that it has weapons of mass destruction is time tested and well known tactics. In the case of Iraq it was nuclear weapons and now in the case of Syria it is the Chemical Weapons. It seems both Saddam Hussain then and Assad now are victims of American greed to neutralise all opposition to its hegemony in the region and any possible threat to its ally Israel. Saudi and Turkish short sighted policy of countering Iran through countering its ally Syria is becoming helpful in this effort.
However, unlike 2003 Iraq there is one possible difference now. Syria is probably the first major victim of the new cold war roughly started with the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. This new cold war is primarily a war between two capitalist blocks led by countries like Russia and China on the one hand and the USA on the other. In this context, one should not see the election of Donald Trump as an accident and should definitely not call his policies “mindless”. The capitalism in crisis needs bigger conflicts to steer away from its problems. The neoliberal age of finance capital will be very happy if “the anarchy” in some parts of the world provides some distractions to people both within and outside the metropolitan states and keep them from questioning its inability to check global rise in destitution, environment degradation and inequality.
The author is Assistant Professor at TISS, Hyderabad