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    Middle East
     Jul 17, 2012

Syrian switch triggers toxic omens
By Carl O Schuster

HONOLULU, Hawaii - Reports out of the Middle East suggest the Assad regime has removed chemical weapons from their main depots, triggering speculation that Damascus may be considering their use against the rebellion sweeping across that country.

Washington has warned the regime against doing so but some Middle Eastern sources say the move was intended to protect them from possible seizure by rebel elements. However, Sky News reported on Saturday that "intelligence sources," claimed the weapons had been moved to the Homs Region. Homs is both the center and primary recruiting ground of the current anti-regime rebellion and where military forces of current Syrian President


Bashar al-Assad's father killed thousands during a previous Sunni-based uprising against the regime.

If Sky News' sources are accurate, the weapons are being positioned for potential use against the rebels. Militaries trying to prevent a system's capture, move them away from enemy lines, not towards them. That probably explains Washington's warning the regime against using chemical weapons on the rebels. China, Iran and Russia have remained silent but any Syrian employment of chemical weapons would be a major embarrassment for those governments, whose support has sustained the regime throughout the fighting and in China's and Russia's case, prevented unified international action against Damascus.

Little is known about Syria's chemical arsenal and the regime has never employed them. Most analysts believe Syria developed the weapons to deter Israel from employing its nuclear inventory. That justification has no relevance to the current situation, but with defections increasing; and sanctions biting into the regime's capacity to sustain itself and fight the opposition, President Assad is at least considering ways to end the rebellion quickly and decisively. He or some of those around him may believe chemical weapons are a means to achieve that. Looking back at Iraq, they probably noticed that Saddam Hussein's use of sarin gas greatly facilitated his campaign against the Kurds. The international community did little other than protest at the time. However, the world has changed since then and Syria's strategic circumstances today differ radically from Iraq's in the 1980s.

There is no Cold War underway today with contending ideologies competing for allies in the Middle East. Also, Syria is not the bulwark against a pariah regime the international community sees as a threat to regional stability; a status Iraq enjoyed in its war against Iran. Quite the contrary, Syria is an ally of that very same pariah regime, Tehran, which is pursuing a nuclear program in the face of the international community's opposition. Syria's de-stabilizing impact on Lebanon and support to Hezbollah all but eliminates any geo-strategic considerations that may lead countries to overlook it employing prohibited armaments against its citizens. Chinese and Russian diplomats may be highlighting those differences in any ongoing discussions with their Syrian counterparts.

At the moment, there is no unifying call for the West or the UN to intervene in Syria like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did in Libya. Employing chemical weapons against the rebels will change that dynamic and the regime's calculation of its next move must take that into account. But regime survival concerns will have precedence over any fears of international intervention. Moreover, Assad appears to be taking solace in the fact there is little appetite for intervention in Syria. Although some analysts have noted Libya was neither the hard nut nor Muammar Gaddafi's opposition the potential hotbed of militant Islam that intervention opponents feared. Assad knows that Syria's internal demographics and communal history have more in common with Iraq than Libya, albeit in reversed roles.

Like Gaddafi and Hussein, Assad leads a minority regime but there are as many differences as parallels among the countries. Although Libya's society was divided along tribal and ethnic lines, the vast majority of its citizens adhered to the moderate Sufi or Senussi branches of Sunni Islam. More importantly, Gaddafi's tribal power base constituted less than 5% of Libya's population and the tribes that allied with him, only numbered another 25-35% and supported him for self-serving purposes. That support evaporated in the face of air power and a changing domestic power balance. Moreover, no tribal group in Libya enjoys a plurality, much less a majority in the country. Accommodation and cooperation have marked traditional inter-tribal relations in Libya outside the country's eastern territories, where frictions and an irredentist movement remain a concern.

Finally, Gaddafi sent thousands of Libyans to study in the West and recruited foreigners to teach in his universities and schools. He probably believed he was building a technological foundation for Libya's future under the leadership of his descendants, but he also inadvertently imported Western ideas and created a middle class with political aspirations. Those factors are not prevalent in Syria.

Syria's demographics are similar to Iraq's, only with the communal roles and percentages reversed. The Alawite minority that Assad represents is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, a key factor in Iran's support for the regime and its relationship with Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iraq's Shi'ite-based political parties. Alawites number about 12-14% of Syria's population and enjoy the support of another 10-12%; the country's small Christian, Assyrian, Kurdish and Druze communities who view the regime as their primary protection against the disenfranchised Sunni majority.

Although many Syrian elites have been educated in Europe; the regime preferred Iran and Russia for its citizens' higher education needs. The Sunni Arab majority, about 74% of the population, has tribal elements but the divisions within that community primarily lie between those who've benefited from the regime and the vast majority who have not. The former group provides some of the regime's military and civil service leadership. In fact, many of the recent defectors consist of Sunnis serving the regime. More may follow, which may be driving the regime's attacks on defectors' home areas. Assad probably hopes punishing families and communal areas will deter future defections. Inducing such fears only works over the short-term and tends to harden opposition attitudes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has led two previous uprisings over the last 40 years, is the best organized of the Sunni-based opposition groups. Their commitment to democracy or democratic principles is limited at best. But they may be tempered by Syria's largely secular society in a fashion not unlike that which has played out in Egypt. Certainly, intervention proponents will present that as a likely outcome of any regime change facilitation. Opponents will note the Egyptian Brotherhood's statements and early actions as portends of what Egypt will become. The reality is that any Syrian regime change probably will not be a cheap or comparatively clean as Libya's nor as expensive and deadly as Iraq's. As with any other predictions, the future will remain uncertain until it arrives.

What is clear; however, is that Syria's sudden movement of its chemical weapons indicates the regime is becoming increasingly insecure about its future and at least considering what it must do to survive. In so doing, Assad has also presented the international community, particularly the UN, with a need to determine its future course as well. Hopefully, Assad's calculations will err on the side of moral pragmatism. Unfortunately, that is a choice desperate dictatorships rarely make.

Carl O Schuster is a retired United States Navy Captain based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed here are his own.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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