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    Middle East
     Sep 4, '13

How Assad keeps the upper hand
By Riccardo Dugulin

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

With a stern look, President Barack Obama stated this week that should the United States receive the adequate congressional clearing before they will contemplate a "limited tailored approaches" in response to the Syrian regime use of chemical weapons against its own population.

While the world is impatiently waiting for the next step, the growing lack of resolution among US and French leaders highlight one simple reality. The Western leading powers will intervene

militarily in Syria only if they cannot do otherwise and the key word for such a military operation is "limited".

The supposed attack will be limited in its scope, limited in its reach and limited in time, but its results won't be. As member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization appear satisfied with this concept of limited war, the core nature of the Syrian conflict and of the Middle Eastern fighting ethos seems to be misunderstood.

The war that is being fought in Syria is a total one, the conflict that is raging on will result in the outmost destruction of parts of the Syrian populations. There are strong chances that sooner or later the Syrian violence will effectively spill over into Lebanon and lead to a second civil conflict between the different sects and political groups of the this country.

While Western powers are not obliged to enter the expanding Syrian conflict, if they take such a decision they need to address it in a determined and decisive way. In fact, prolonged talks about the limited character of the operations are already playing into the hands of Bashar Al-Assad and this for three reasons.

By setting up clear "red lines" Obama and Hollande have forced themselves into action, should this action not be taken or should they keep on being hesitant about it, any future position they will take in regard to the Middle East will most likely be irrelevant to local decision makers.

The second point is that those supporting Assad are in no way advocating for a limited answer. Iran and Hezbollah are fully committed both through their human capital and the means used to the survival of the regime. In addition to that Russia is putting its full diplomatic weight on the issue thus gambling on the fact that it can possibly win a major victory on the international scene should the Western power back down.

The third and last point is that the "limited approach" is the embodiment of the post-Iraq syndrome which sees Western powers unable to commit to any serious extent in the Middle East, a syndrome which emboldens both Sunni and Shi'ite terrorist groups as well as state actors whose objective is to target US, European and Israeli interests in the region.

Assad has a clear understanding of these three factors and for this he maintains a strategic upper hand in the current crisis. A war-wary Obama lacks the personal convictions former president Bush had about the outmost necessity of preventing dictators from possessing and using weapons of mass destruction.

France is blocked by an uninterested population and major financial issues. In a period of radical changes in the region, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah see that they may actually benefit from the current crisis. While entire regions of Syria are no longer under governmental control, the possible long-lasting lack of credibility by the international community and especially by Western powers will prove to be a major force multiplier for Iran and Hezbollah.

In this situation, Israel stands alone for the protection of its borders and its population. Widening the already existing gap between Western powers and Israel, the Syrian crisis is essential in underlying the apparently ineffective way the Obama administration and its allies have been using to protect their interest and partners in the region.

A limited strike may only further put Israel on the frontline as the Syrian regime has been clear that possible retaliations would hit Israeli cities. While Lebanon is slowly but surely disintegrating under the pressure of competing militias, Israel needs to brace for the increasingly plausible possibility of a war on two-fronts, facing Lebanese-based terrorist groups and Syrian troops.

Al Assad has for the moment the upper hand as the Syrian president is currently benefiting from what appears to be one of the weakest show of force the United States have set up in decades. While this is happening, the international community must understand that in the Middle East when clear "red lines" are crossed and no adequate action is taken the effect is likely to lead on three results: the increased loss of innocent lives, a growth in terrorist networks adventurist aims and additional attacks against the third parties such as Israel or the local minorities. Left virtually alone in this situation, Israel will need to defend itself as it has always been doing, maintaining a posture which will not however lead to any change in the Syrian conflict.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Riccardo Dugulin holds a Master degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance Company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut.

(Copyright 2013 Riccardo Dugulin)

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