Footfalls echo in Syria's rose-garden
By M K Bhadrakumar
The coincidence couldn't be more telling. No sooner than the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Damascus - within 72 hours, in fact - the Syrian opposition figures based in Istanbul, Turkey, have claimed that up to 1,400 people have been killed in chemical weapons attacks by the government forces on the outskirts of the Syrian capital on Wednesday morning.
The media blitzkrieg has been equally stunning - press conferences, video presentations by opposition activists, "expert opinion" from Western capitals and instantaneous reactions by western politicians.
The United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and the Arab League are among those who have demanded for urgent action.
The UN Security Council promptly held a closed-door meeting to
consider the allegation against the Syrian government. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government itself has strongly refuted the allegation calling it a "dirty" media war, which reflected the "hysteria, disorder and breakdown" of the rebels who have suffered a string of devastating military defeats in the recent days and weeks.
Shedding full light
What is the game plan? One vital clue lies in the appointment of the Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom as the head of the UN team that landed in Damascus three days ago. Sellstrom served in the select band of UN weapon inspectors in Iraq.
Reuters quoted Sellstrom backing the demand that the alleged attacks in Damascus suburbs should be investigated and he even mooted a plan of action. Sellstrom suggested,
It [Syrian opposition claim] sounds like something that should be looked into. It will depend on whether any UN member state goes to the secretary general and says we should look at this event. We are in place.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague picked up Sellstrom's excellent idea and said,
I call on the Syrian government to allow immediate access to the area for the UN team currently investigating previous allegations of chemical weapons use ... The UK will be raising this incident at the UN Security Council.
France concurred within no time. President Francois Hollande too felt that the allegations "require verification and confirmation" and Paris would ask the UN to go to the site "to shed full light" on the allegations. Germany nodded in agreement.
The Turkish foreign ministry had a full-fledged statement ready, which said Ankara is "deeply concerned" and the team of UN inspectors already in Syria "must investigate the allegations in question and present its findings" to the security council.
Interestingly, the much-awaited statement by the White House in Washington turned out to be an endorsement of the European-Turkish demand - stopping short of confirming the incident but adding it was working to gather additional information, while demanding,
There is today, as we speak, on the ground in Syria, a United Nations team with a specialty in investigating the use of chemical weapons. So, let's give this team the opportunity to investigate what exactly occurred and get to the bottom of this so that we can hold accountable those who were responsible.
Indeed, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council has taken place in New York. The council did not explicitly demand a UN investigation but agreed that "clarity" was needed and welcomed UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon's calls for a prompt investigation by Sellstrom's team.
In the words of Ambassador Cristina Perceval of Argentina, currently president of the Security Council, there is "strong concern among the Council members" about the allegations, and "a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened" and that the situation has to be followed carefully''.
Meanwhile, Ban's spokesman told journalists in New York that Sellstrom is already "in discussions with the Syrian Government on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident''.
Camel in Bashar's tent
In sum, the UN inspection team which is mandated to be in Syria up to 14 days - as agreed between the Syrian government and the UN - "with a possible extension" to probe the use of alleged use of chemical weapons at Khan al-Assal and two other undisclosed cites may just be getting an enhanced mandate.
If so, it becomes a diplomatic coup of sorts for the Western powers and their Middle Eastern allies who have been persistently seeking some form of UN intervention in Syria.
In essence, Sellstrom may well be on an open-ended mission now since the Syrian opposition will endeavor to make fresh allegations in other places in Syria as well. Most important, Sellstrom may tiptoe at some stage toward the chemical weapon stockpiles of the Bashar Al-Assad regime.
Clearly, the camel has entered Bashar's tent. Sellstrom will now begin filing reports to Ban, which the latter will be obliged to bring to the notice of the Security Council and that, in turn, could mean the opening of a Syrian file in New York, which the West all along wanted.
What does it all add up to? Three things emerge. One, the momentum of stunning successes by the Syrian military over the rebels is almost certainly going to be punctuated. The Syrian regime will need to turn attention to the diplomatic battle that lies ahead.
The government forces have won successes in key battlefields such as in the central and coastal regions of Homs and Latakia and the suburbs of Damascus. General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the influential military aide to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, claimed only Wednesday in Tehran that the "[Syrian] terrorists have been almost defeated from the military perspective." Savafi added,
What is left is the Geneva 2 conference. On one side there will be the US, Israel, France, England, Turkey and some Arab states, which supported the opposition. As a result of its domestic issues, Turkey has now realized its strategic mistake and left the front. Saudi Arabia is dealing with its Egypt project. The rest of the front is present but defeated.
But on the other side of this front, there reside Russia, China and Iran, which aided Syria. Of course, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah aided Syria politically and internationally as they support restoration of peace, stability and tranquility to Syria.
Did Safavi speak one day too soon? Is Iran fully in the loop? Is its triumphalism warranted? The answers will unfold soon.
Meanwhile, Moscow is maintaining deafening silence over the latest allegations on chemical weapons, presumably taken aback by the lightning speed with which the Western powers and their regional allies got the Syrian file into the agenda of the Security Council.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov had a telephone conversation on Wednesday morning with the Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud to "discuss the situation in Egypt and Syria ... [and] the relations between the two countries''. Bandar is a delightful bag of tricks, and at any rate, by Wednesday evening, Riyadh sang a different tune, with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal saying,
The UN Security Council should work out a clear resolution to put an end to the tragedy. We are shocked by the massacre in Syrian cities with the use of chemical weapons, which are prohibited under international law.
This is the second thing. The tectonic plates in the geopolitics of the Middle East were beginning to show some movement in recent weeks over developments in Egypt. The disharmony amongst the erstwhile allies who were until recently collaborating over the Syria project was becoming too obvious to be papered over.
Turkey began openly criticizing the Egyptian junta and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) supporters and taunting the West over its much-vaunted democracy project in the new Middle East. Qatar vanished from the Syrian frontline. Washington still wouldn't call the Egyptian coup by its real name, while the European Union is dithering on imposing any embargo on Egypt, with Saudi Arabia threatening to make up for any Western embargo on Egypt.
Stalling a reset
But the most sensational part of the realignment is the nascent proximity between Russia on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies (especially the United Arab Emirates) on the other hand in their shared antipathy toward Muslim Brotherhood.
At the very least, the Syrian chemical weapon controversy puts a sudden break on the incipient moves of a "reset" in the political alignments in the Middle East. The Western powers have circled the wagons and their restive Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, in particular - are being told to stay put, with the signal that the Syrian project is work in progress.
The heart of the matter is that the West simply cannot afford a regional ascendance by Russia, China and Iran. Nor is the West comfortable with the increasingly maverick ways in which its regional allies are behaving.
Paradoxically, the chemical weapons controversy provides a vital lifeline for Turkey's beleaguered Recep Erdogan to break out of acute isolation over Egypt. Erdogan is at his wit's end in coping with the Kurdish problem, which has been surging lately as the leitmotif of the Syrian conflict. The Syrian Kurds have frontally challenged Ankara's covert nexus with the al-Qaeda affiliates operating in northeastern Syria bordering Turkey, which puts Erdogan in a tight spot.
A tantalizing question, however, arises. The European powers - Britain and France in particular - and Turkey are evidently spearheading the latest controversy over chemical weapons. But how far and how real is the Obama administration's involvement in it?
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, went on record as recently as Monday that the Obama administration is opposed to even limited military intervention in Syria because it believes that the rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn't support American interests if they were to seize power right now.
He wrote with brutal frankness in a formal letter addressed to US Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat - New York),
Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.
It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad's rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.
The use of US military force can change the military balance. But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.
Dempsey concluded that the Obama administration is on course with its current policy of focusing on humanitarian assistance and bolstering the moderate opposition in Syria, since such an approach "represents the best framework for an effective US strategy toward Syria''."
A perpetual possibility
All in all, therefore, the chemical weapons controversy opens an exit door of sorts for the western powers (and Turkey) in Syria. The western powers have been dodging the issue of arming the Syrian rebels after making verbal pledges while Assad's forces have been gradually gaining the upper hand militarily.
The Syrian opposition is in a mess and Egypt's strongman General Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi told its leaders who were based in Cairo to get lost. On the other hand, the Brotherhood, which dominated the Syrian opposition, is under heavy Saudi artillery fire all across the region.
In sum, the compass of the "regime change" project in Syria has shifted in favor of the Salafists. Besides, these are still early days in Egypt and what happens on the Nile banks would ultimately rewrite Middle eastern politics. In the present situation, Assad will negotiate from a position of unassailable strength at the "Geneva 2" negotiating table, which is untenable.
This is where the chemical weapons controversy and the opening of a Syrian file at the UN Security Council offers a breather to break the momentum of Assad's army and the swagger of the Hezbollah and Iran and end the look of smug satisfaction on the Russian face.
Is this a prelude to an Iraq-like scenario? The chancelleries in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing will be assessing. No doubt, Sellstrom is tiptoeing dangerously close toward Bashar's WMD stockpiles, something, which the US (and Israel) always wanted to fasten.
The only task assigned to weapon inspector Sellstrom when he landed in Damascus three days ago with his team was to inspect three specific sites to determine whether chemical weapons were used in Syria. He didn't have a mandate even to name the party responsible.
Now, all that is history. The plain truth is that Sellstrom's footfalls are beginning to echo in the memory. One could visualize Sellstrom going down the passage towards the door "we never opened into the rose-garden''.
Maybe, as T. S. Eliot wrote,
"But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know."
But we know that what was an abstraction until the dawn broke on Wednesday is becoming a perpetual possibility in today's world of speculation.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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