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Syria's catch 22: damned if you attack, screwed if you don't

It seems a US strike on Syria is now imminent. Presumably without the backing of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Apparently, Assad has trespassed the red line President Obama spoke about a year ago. As if more than 100,000 deaths and nearly 2 million refugees were not convincing enough a reason. A horrifying attack with chemical weapons on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that allegedly left behind more than 1,000 dead has set itself up as the most probable turning point of a conflict that has already ravaged the country and the whole region for more than two years. 

An attack that last week raised many eyebrows, as UN inspectors were precisely on Syrian ground in order to investigate accusations in that exact respect. Useless inspectors, may I say, as for one they were stationed several miles away from the assault and for two the protocol informing their actions bars them from identifying who used chemical weapons. Many wondered whether Assad´s regime could be that provocative, or maybe just reckless. The regime´s entourage has blamed the rebels, clinging to the same-o same-o discourse on terrorism that seems to be nowadays in vogue in the region. A rebel attack seems highly implausible, though: if rebels are indeed able to carry out such a large scale chemical attack, why not attack official forces and change the tide of the war? Regardless of determining the exact authorship of the bloody move, the United States (followed by other Western countries) were for once swift to react vowing to punish the Syrian regime, although nobody has still mentioned a word about the target, the scale or the means. And the Byzantine debate on intervention was inevitably sparked again.

Even though the evidence of use of chemical reasons has always been considered a justifiable cause for retaliation, it is at the same time true that it is not the first time this kind of weapons are used in Syria. A key question then arises: why now? The answer may lie in the very evolution of the conflict, that months ago was at a serious but steady stalemate but that now looks more favourable to Mr Assad. In May, the Battle of Qusayr clearly tilted the power balance in the regime’s favor, and its stance has been greatly improving since then. Now, and precisely because a political solution seems to be the only plausible one, any sensible negotiation within an international framework would need that imbalance to redress in the opposition’s favour. The attack might thus cause enough heat to create momentum for the convocation of a Geneva II meeting next fall. This may only be achieved by means of buying them a few more months, as well as by increasing (quantitative and qualitatively) the number of weapons smuggled into the country. An attack that weakens the regime, although not routing it, will certainly facilitate the former. The aim would not be ousting Assad, but debilitating him. In this sense, demonising him through these accusations will also certainly do the trick. Other suppositions point to a rumoured disintegration of the Syrian command structure or a dangerous escalation by the rebels.

Leaving any idealistic approach aside (this is not me, but I am working on it), another reason which may explain the scheduled time of the attack is also the realization that Assad may win the war, a threat for the US and others who want the stalemate to drag on and the conflict to become an attrition war. In this case, the goal would be to wear various strategic players and leave them out of play. If both lose, Washington wins. On the contrary, a restoration of the Assad regime backed by Iran would increase the power and status of the latter in the Middle East, while a rebel victory dominated by extremist factions would certainly augur another wave of Al Qaeda-style terrorism. This is nothing new: in the eighties, during the war between Iran and IraqWashington provided support, weapons and military information to Baghdad while Saddam Hussein used sarin against both Iranian and Kurdish people. At the same time, U.S. played a double game facilitating arms in secret to Iran between 1985 and 1987. 

The example of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 looms larger and larger. What if, even if it now looks extremely unlikely, the world later discovers that Assad has not carried out the attack used as justification for intervention, just as it happened a decade ago?  What if the Obama Administration is unable to gather enough support for this move (UK Parliament has already said no to intervention) and it finds itself alone in attacking an Arab country, being already as of lately the target of much hostility in other parts of the region? Up to a certain extent, but without the UN approval, the ideal situation would be 2011 Libya: a sufficiently broad coalition including Arab countries supporting and pooling resources in the intervention. But many countries (including the US itself), exhausted and at the sight of the subsequent events, did later regret the meddling. Besides, and like many analysts have claimed before, Syria is not Libya. The real precedent to take into account in this case would rather be Kosovo, where the Government also failed to protect its population and the West decided to intervene on the grounds of the "responsibility to protect" doctrine.

Western discredit is not the worst possible consequence of the strike. First, let's not forget it all could go wrong, the attack giving way to a bolstered Syrian regime spreading even more chaos and violence, both on the ground and in neighbouring countries, notably Lebanon. That includes retaliation from Assad's main allies, Hezbollah and Iran, not only in Syria but also directing their anger against Israel, Lebanon itself, Jordan, or eveb Saudi Arabia which, don't fool ourselves, would for sure later retaliate (aided by the US, which in turn would feel impelled to become more engaged in war). Second, if the attack is intense enough to completely destroy the Syrian regime, it will destroy whatever is left of Syria. All possibilities look frightening enough to force any leader to think twice before acting.

In addition, and even though the West and other allies´ intention is strengthening the moderate elements in the Syrian opposition and mainly, along with Saudi ArabiaQatarJordanTurkey and others, training the Free Syrian Army, the attack may just have the opposite effect. That is, reinforcing the already too-strong stand of the radical Islamist forces that nowadays control many rebel-held areas. The danger is that if the regime loses Damascus, the jihadists will be on their borders. Again, the strike should not be looking forward to topple Assad, but to merely damaging his regime.

The US and its eventual allies will certainly face another threat: in many Arab minds, the idea of the West is directly related to the concept of colonialism. And rightly so, if we take into account the last decades. The idea of neo-colonialism is not helped at all by the fact that the United States seems to be above all willing to maintain its own "credibility", its position as a hegemonic power. A majority of the Arab population is convinced there may be "no other options" to confronting the violence. Foreign intervention in Syria becomes thus an imperative, but it should maybe be headed by a fellow Arab country.

Every time I previously thought about the Syrian conflict I kept telling to myself "things cannot get any worse." Well, actually they can.

PS. On a funny note, this  ( is one of the most brilliant imaginary debates on the Middle East I have read in months.


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