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    Middle East
     Aug 26, '13

Syrians to be losers - again
By Victor Kotsev

Whether or not the United States chooses to lead an international attack on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as it has been threatening to do, most analysts seem to agree that the intervention would be limited and would not put and end to the brutal civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives to date.

The irony is that the current situation in Syria, following an alleged chemical weapons attack reported to have claimed some 1,000 civilian lives, presents a golden opportunity for international cooperation. But the biggest tragedy is that this opportunity, like so many others, is likely to be wasted, prolonging indefinitely the suffering of the Syrian people.

There is little agreement over what happened on Wednesday

morning, and practically no way to verify the facts at present. The pictures that emerged following the bombardment by the Syrian army of several suburbs of the capital Damascus are heartbreaking - rows of dead children lined up on the floors of makeshift hospitals, their eyes open and few visible signs of physical injury.

It seems fairly clear that a poison gas did in fact cause the deaths, but there are at least four different main hypotheses as to who used it and in why. It could have been the Syrian army with approval from Assad's circle; it could have been elements of the Syrian army going rogue; it could have been Iranian agents acting to provoke a wider confrontation; it could have been jihadists within the rebel ranks themselves, or any number of other possibilities.

Speculation runs rampant. One spin-off is that whoever used sarin - or another neurotoxin - mixed small amounts of the gas with a lot of other, less lethal chemicals, in an attempt to cover up their tracks. This would explain the fairly large number of survivors of the attack: according to the Syrian rebels, thousands of people were affected but recovered.

Perhaps we will not find out the full truth for a long time, if ever. After several days of prevarications and international pressure, the Syrian regime agreed to let a team of 20 United Nations chemical weapons experts, currently stationed in Damascus, enter the affected areas and investigate. Shortly thereafter, American officials claimed that the offer came "too late to be credible'', and amid reports that the US is repositioning warships so as to be able to strike Syria with cruise missiles, it may indeed be so.

The White House is clearly under pressure, even if recent polls show that most Americans continue to be opposed to a military intervention. At stake is the international credibility of US President Barack Obama, who said exactly a year ago that the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" that would presumably force his hand to bomb the Syrian regime. Now that the largest such attack since former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds to death in 1988 has apparently taken place, US allies and enemies alike are asking themselves if Obama can be trusted to keep his word.

"Obama clearly wants to stay out of Syria, and this is going to suck him in," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. "Obviously he's going to try to drum up support for any action in Europe. So it also puts the European governments on the front lines."

On the other side of the divide stand Russia and Iran, backed quietly by China. All of them have adopted the position that it would be a "tragic mistake" to blame Assad prematurely - much more so to attack him.

Analysts say that the Syrian regime had little incentive to use chemical weapons, particularly at a time when it enjoys an overwhelming advantage of firepower and the UN team is already on the ground in Damascus. But this does not mean that the Syrian army did not do it.

"One thing that we suggest is, it's possible that Assad didn't authorize the use of chemical weapons," said Anna Boyd, a senior analyst at the London-based IHS Global Insight.

"It seems likely to us that yes, it was Assad's forces who used them, but we know that actually he's been facing some criticism from within his own army because he allowed access to the UN inspectors and because he's seen as not being even tough enough on the rebels. So it's possible that this was a decision by lower-level commanders to really force Assad's hand and to make him take a tougher position against rebels, and to really throw a spanner in the works of any cooperation with the UN inspectors."

This assessment begs the question, if that is indeed the case, would military action against Assad really deter future attacks, or would it simply increase the clout of the hardliners within the ranks of his army? Some of the other possibilities are even more disheartening - according to reports in the Turkish press, a group of Syrian jihadists were caught with chemical weapons in Ankara in June, and if it turns out that it was indeed their comrades who gassed their own people in an attempt to draw the US into the fight, an intervention would only reward their grisly deeds.

If there is a silver lining in the current situation, it is that any meaningful response to Wednesday's attack would have to involve cooperation between all the major powers whose longstanding rivalry is at the root of a lot of problems in the Middle East.

"It's a very difficult time now in Russian-Western relations, especially with relations with the United States," said Victor Mizin, a senior Russian analyst who is the vice president of the Center for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

"But I think that if Russia is forthcoming, and if it doesn't show obduracy but is forthcoming saying that it's ready to send out some experts to help with the international fact-finding missions, it would be only very propitious for the upgrade of the Russian international standing, showing that it's a responsible international actor."

According to the Washington Post's Max Fisher, such cooperation could even involve Iran. [1] But with reports that the US and its allies just sent a particularly large consignment of munitions to the Syrian rebels, [2] not to mention the warships and the militant rhetoric of Western leaders, this possibility appears distant at best.

Unfortunately, the alternative of unilateral Western military intervention - perhaps along the lines of the NATO air offensive against Yugoslavia in the late 1990s - is unlikely to stop the carnage.

"There doesn't seem to be any indication that there will be a foreign intervention on a scale that would change the outcome of the war," said Boyd. "Even if there was a small-scale intervention to take out missile launchers, to strike at Assad's ability to launch chemical weapons, his ground forces, his artillery would still be intact."

1. The US does have nonmilitary options in Syria. Here are four of them, Washington Post, August 23, 2013.
2. Large arms shipment reaches Syrian rebels: opposition, Reuters, August 25, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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