Syria: Brothers in Blood, Blood Brothers
By James Hansen and Fadi Elhusseini
Rarely have the drums of war beaten more loudly than they did over the much announced and never executed US strike on Syria.Despite the proclamations of Washington and other Western capitals that they had “very little or no doubt” that Syrian President Bashar Assad had ordered the use of chemical weapons against his own people – causing as many as 1,429 deaths, including 426 children – nothing very much has happened.
The “red line” traced by American President Barack Obama some months back in warning the Syrian dictator against the use of such weapons turned out to be a feeble – and ultimately embarrassing – obstacle against their employ.
It is certainly true that Assad no longer enjoys any sympathy worldwide, but he clearly still rules his country and, if anything, it appears less likely now than before that major support will reach his internal enemies in the Syrian civil war.
If the cost to Syria is that of becoming a sort of Russian client state in the Middle East in terms of its international stance – one way to interpret the ultimate cost of Mr. Putin’s somewhat unexpected diplomatic support – Assad must have felt that was a small cost to pay for his own survival.
In a perverse way nearly everyone gained something from this outcome: Assad is still in power, Mr. Obama is down off the embarrassing policy limb on which he found himself, Obama’s nominal if uneasy Middle Eastern allies – ranging from Israel and Turkey all the way to Saudi Arabia – have taught him that they must be listened to and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has, oddly, managed to come off as a peacemaker of sorts.
There is even talk of awarding the Russian Premier an improbable Nobel Peace Prize.
In the midst of all this, the victims of the original attack in the “Guta” neighbourhood of East Damascus have been forgotten and will not have justice. Though apparently non-combatants, they are believed to have been killed with a neurotoxin, most likely the nerve gas Sarin, originally developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1938.
Theirs was not an easy death. A fatal dose of the substance – a very small amount – rapidly causes convulsions and then paralysis leading to respiratory failure. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a British consultant in chemical and biological weapons, has described exposure to nerve agents like Sarin as “a horrible way to die.”
In concrete terms, Mr. Assad – whose Government in the last analysis did not do much to refute the accusation of having killed its own citizens in this terrible fashion – has got off by promising that he will not do it again, and that his supplies of Sarin and other chemical weapons will eventually be destroyed within a so far unspecified date.
Members of the Syrian Government have even proposed that international bodies should reimburse them the cost of destroying the weapons – suggesting that a billion or two dollars might be sufficient to cover their costs.
Very, very simply, Western “Un-Real Politik” has had another fatal clash with power as understood in those parts of the world where governing is still seen as an activity “red in tooth and claw.”
Some of this is the result of a series of intelligence failures. The Anglo-American security services, in spite of their presumed ability to monitor worldwide telecommunications, have consistently failed to “get it right” with respect to Middle Eastern weapons of mass destruction.
Aside from the French, remarkably quick off the mark in this circumstance, neither the American public nor the country’s other allies were entirely convinced of the rush to judgement regarding Assad’s guilt, given the past lapses in Iraq and their high cost.
The unenthusiastic reaction of the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, when his country was invited to participate in the punitive action against Syria, speaks volumes: “Germany will be among those who deem such consequences as appropriate,” he replied, very clearly suggesting that his government wished to make clear it would have no part whatsoever in the proceedings.
There are too darker suspicions regarding Western inaction. Some analysts suggest that the bloody civil war currently being waged in Syria represents a historical juncture where the interests of several countries meet; that is, that the clash is a kind of proxy for broader conflicts.
If that is true, then prolonging the bloodletting – by favouring moral posturing over taking action – may ultimately be in the Western interest. It preserves a stalemate that tends to exhaust Syrian capability on the one hand while grinding down the military resources of both Shiite fighters (Hezbollah and Iran’s revolutionary guards) and Sunni militants (Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra) on the other.
However that may be, the simplest truth appears to be that the West does not know how to react to a war in which there are no “good guys”, where neither side appeals particularly to Western sentiments or is an effective paladin representing obvious and immediate Western interests.
The conflict in Syria is a civil war, a notoriously savage, no holds barred form of clash between brothers in blood more than between blood brothers. Brothers all the same perhaps, but none of them are ours – except in a broad philosophical sense that tends to collapse in front of the cost of direct involvement…
Also available in Italian
Published in: East Magazine- issue No. 50 (East 50)