Troubles stalking Syria's Assad regime

Daily: Pakistan Today
Date: 19.04.17

The Arab Spring of yesteryears sweeping across the Middle East (ME) made its first stop in
Syria not because of the alacrity of the ruling regime of President Bashar al-Assad to
reform the system but because of Russia’s support to deny the demand of reforms. This is
how the spate of change that engulfed Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya
got halted in Syria.

In this month, two events have invited the attention of the world to Syria. First, the use of a
gas (Sarin or Chlorine) attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on
April 4 consuming more than 70 lives. Second, the launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles from
two US warships in the Mediterranean to damage Syria’s Shayrat air base in Homs province
on April 6. Both events have their own implications.

On April 4, the use of a gas attack on a small scale probably through a rocket, whether
used by the Assad regime or the rebels, indicates two points. First, be in whatever form,
chemical weapons exist in Syria, and so is the will to use them. This point makes Syria
different from Iraq where the search for chemical weapons ended in vain in 2003. Second,
Islam as a religion of peace has done little to temper the brutality of Arabs. This point
renders the ME notorious for its ruthlessness to exterminate fellow Arabs, whether or not
they are co-religionists, to achieve political aims.

The history of importing chemicals and making chemical bombs is also not new to the ME.
Saddam Hussain’s Iraq was disreputable for throwing chemical bombs on its own population
such as Kurds (on the Kurdish city of Halabja in March 1988 killing thousands, for example)
to quell any impending rebellion. Saddam’s failure to account for the imported canisters of
chemicals led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in search of chemical weapons as Weapons of
Mass Destruction (WMD). Syria’s having the same weapon is fashioning the next episode
for the same sort of search.

On April 6, the launching of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to damage Syria’s Shayrat air
base in retaliation to the chemical attack also indicates two points. First, newly elected US
President Donald Trump is determined to impose the red line – punishment for using
chemical weapons – on Syria, pronounced in August 2012 by former US President Barack
Obama but not enforced subsequently. Second, for its survival, the Assad regime is bound
to count on Russia more than ever before. With that, the chances for US-Russia tension
are bound to intensify. No doubt, on April 12, by vetoing the eighth UNSC Resolution on
Syria since 2011, Russia protected the Assad regime from condemnation and investigation,
the risk of combing Syria for WMD is not over yet.

Generally, years of subjugation initially under the Ottoman Turks, followed by Franco-
British colonialism and then the US influence has left a deep mark on the psyche of Arabs.
The long spell of passivity has permitted the Arab rulers to study keenly the mutual rivalry
of big powers of the world and contrive ways to exploit the same to their benefit. On the
other hand, the policies of the big powers remained marred with realpolitik by watching one’
s oil interests in the region and overlooking an Arab regime’s political behavior.

In the twentieth century, two years stand out in the history of the ME. First, 1916 when
power shifted hands. That is, the Ottoman Empire ended and European imperialism
(represented by Britain and France) began its reign over the ME after signing the Sykes-
Picot agreement, named after Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the British and
French diplomats. The agreement not only created the borders of modern states such as
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon but also divided the ME into British and French areas of influence.
Second, 1956 when the US replaced the monopoly of both British and French by actively
resolving the Suez Canal crisis and consequently becoming a force in the ME to reckon
with. At the end of the Second World War, when the newly decolonized countries were
opting for espousing democracy, the ME chose for persisting with monarchy, an improved
version of tribalism. Under this status, the antiquated traditions of brutality and suppression
expressed through throwing chemical bombs on citizens suspected with any form of revolt
remained veiled.

During the Cold War (1949-1989), the former Soviet Union became able to win over certain
countries of the ME to its side such as Iraq and Syria whereas Saudi Arabia, Israel and
Egypt (after 1973) sided with the US. In the brutal punishment of Iraq during the Iraq-Kuwait
war (1990-91) especially on the Highway of Death in 1991 and later on in search of WMD in
2003, the pro-Soviet past of Iraq did matter. At that time, the decrepit status of Russia
dissuaded it from succoring Iraq. Nevertheless, when the Arab Spring of December 2010
knocked at the door of Syria in March 2011, Syria also became fearful of its pro-Soviet past.

Both stints of former US President Barack Obama (2009-2016) remained punctuated with
the word “withdrawal” from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – subsumed together under the
Greater Middle East – initiated by his predecessor, George W Bush. Obama is still
discredited for not enforcing the red line (announced in 2012) against the Assad regime on
the use of chemical weapons. Consequently, in August 2013, the Assad regime launched a
chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus. When Obama sought the
approval of Congress to launch a retaliatory military action against the Assad regime,
Russia came to Assad’s rescue by offering a proposal for giving up control of Syria’s
chemical weapons to Russia. In fact, Russia offered a guarantee on behalf of Syria. This
development, which took place in September 2013, prevented Obama from launching the
proposed military attack and offered Russia a chance to enter into the US-Syria equation.
Having encouraged by the entry of Russia, Syria formally requested Russia in September
2015 to come to its support. Consequently, Russia sent its military to Syria to help survive
the Assad regime.

Compared to the past, when Russia was apologetic on behalf of the Assad regime, Russia
is assertive this time and has made counter allegations on the US for conspiring against the
Assad regime. Here, Russia is overlooking two points. First, Russia’s entry into Syria has
halted the reform process in the ME especially in Syria. Second, Russia’s efforts to
pronounce the innocence of the Assad’s regime related to any chemical attack is replete
with making Russia lose moral high ground internationally. The abstinence of China from
vetoing the same UNSC Resolution on April 12, contrary to its past practices, is the first
sign of that.

In the evolving situation of Syria, for the US, the matter is of survival in the ME since 1956,
whereas for Russia the matter is of revival of its status in the eyes of its allies in the ME.
However, the benefit of any US-Russia tussle in Syria is bound to sway in favour of the ISIS
(or the Daesh) in terms of increasing the length of the Daesh’s grip on the land claimed by
it for the Caliphate, recruiting more people and consolidating its hold on the area occupied.
The Daesh offers its own set of challenges to the Assad regime.

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