Hardly has the blood dried on the streets of Cairo, than the ‘international community’ that barely issued a murmur of protest is once again in a paroxysm of horrified indignation at the evils of the Assad regime in Syria. The occasion is the alleged sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which is now said to have killed 1,800 people, and which the Syrian rebels and their international backers have blamed on Assad’s forces.
That a horrific crime has occurred in Ghouta appears to be indisputable, but its scale and its origins have yet to be determined. From a purely cui bono perspective, it beggars belief that the Syrian security forces would have carried out an attack like this, less than 72 hours after the arrival of the UN chemical weapons inspection team.
In the last few months the regime has inflicted a series of reverses on the rebels and driven their forces from key positions, with the conventional weapons at its disposal. Politically, the rebels themselves are in disarray, and the Western interventionists and their Gulf allies have to some extent been placed in check, if not checkmated, by the situation on the ground, by their lack of options, and by their own divisions regarding which rebel groups they are able to support and how they are to support them.
In these circumstances, it makes no sense whatsoever for Assad to take such a provocative step that risks losing all the momentum his regime has gained. It is difficult to see what the regime could possibly gain by carrying out a chemical weapons attack in his own capital, at precisely the moment when a UN chemical weapons inspection team is on the scene.
Some commentators have suggested that such an ‘own goal’ might be an expression of the regime’s ‘irrationality’, but this pseudo-explanation has more to do with psychobabble than politics, of the kind that was once directed at Saddam Hussein to justify the ‘preemptive’ elimination of weapons that he did not have.
The Syrian security forces clearly know who their enemies are, both at home and abroad, and they are undoubtedly aware that a sarin gas attack at this or any other stage of the civil war could only bring about entirely negative repercussions and risk reversing all the gains that they have made, by bringing about a storm of condemnation and a new legitimacy and unity to the ‘red liners’ who have called for military action.
The rebels and their backers know this too, and from their perspective a major atrocity at such an opportune moment is very useful indeed – and could in fact be considered something of a last card, considering their receding options. If so, this savage gambit has been extremely successful, because the US, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all responded exactly as expected, with the usual back-up from their dutiful employee Ban Ki-moon.
Once again there is talk of arming the rebels with advanced weapons, air strikes and no fly zones in order to save ‘innocent lives’. These calls have been echoed in a resumption of the ‘what can we do’ media chorus that was conspicuously absent during last week’s massacres in Egypt.
France, which has clearly developed a taste for militarism since Libya, has been the most gung-ho in calling for the use of ‘force’ against the regime in response to the Ghouta atrocity. The Obama administration has publicly been more restrained, and insisted that more evidence is necessary before it considers its response.
This caution is clearly due to divisions within the US policy establishment, since the dominant assumption, in the US as elsewhere, is that Assad was responsible, and the possibility that it might have been a false flag attack is not even being discussed. No one will be surprised that the imperial minion William Hague has insisted that the Assad regime is responsible, and described the possibility that the attack was perpetrated by the opposition as ‘vanishingly small’.
Horror, disgust and condemnation are certainly justified in response to what has clearly been an awful crime – even if Hague’s kneejerk response smacks of the same kind of manipulation and deceit that has already accompanied previous unresolved chemical incidents. There have been calls for the UN inspection team to widen its mandate and investigate the attack. Such an inspection may not prove anything except that an attack has taken place.
Even if the inspectors were to find traces of sarin or whatever gas was used, it wouldn’t necessarily be able to determine its origin in the midst of a war zone. In addition not all members of UN weapons inspection teams are objective and dispassionate observers, and the Western states that support such inspections tend to hear what they want to hear and ignore what they don’t.
The experience of Iraq has shown that weapons inspections are often instrumentalised by Western states to lock target countries into sanctions regimes and trigger military action. Similar intentions undoubtedly underpin the ‘red lines’ that have been imposed in Syria, but nevertheless the Syrian government may have to agree to an inspection and would in fact do well to allow one, if it wants to back up its own insistence that it was not responsible.