In the summer of 2003, I took part in a debate at Hamburg Law School. My opponent was Richard Perle who, as chair of George W. Bush’s Defence Policy Advisory Committee, was one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq earlier that year, writes Arab journalist Abdelbari Atwan.
In a private conversation after the event, Perle admitted that, even as the invasion began, the administration knew that the United Nations inspectors would not find evidence that Saddam Hussain possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Perle explained the American rationale: If the inspectors had produced a “clean sheet”, Saddam would have emerged as a regional hero, sanctions would have been lifted and within four years he would likely have rebuilt his arsenal, WMDs and all. An emotive, easily understood (by the public), humanitarian pretext was needed to justify the war. I believe we are seeing a similar scenario being played out with regard to Syria.
It is certain that chemical weapons have been used against innocent civilians in the suburbs of Damascus and UN inspectors on the scene will undoubtedly confirm this; but we cannot be absolutely certain who is behind this heinous crime with the opposition and the regime claiming the other, or a third party, was responsible.
It is likely that the regime committed the atrocity, but in 2003, the world thought it likely that Saddam possessed WMDs and members of the Iraqi opposition testified that he did. Now we know that the war which has wrecked Iraq was conducted on the pretext of a proven lie and in order to fulfil America’s wider foreign policy objectives. As in Iraq, global politics is the driving factor behind the escalating crisis in Syria. But here they are much more dangerous.
Unlike Saddam’s Iraq, and indeed unlike Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Syria will not stand alone against an allied strike. Russia, which was still wounded after the breakup of the USSR, when Iraq was attacked, is again a mighty power and may be prepared to prove it on behalf of firm ally, Russia’s only Mediterranean Naval base is in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Regional heavyweight Iran also stands immovable behind Bashar Al Assad, for religious, as well as political reasons — Al Assad’s minority Allawite sect being an offshoot of Shiites. Iraq, riven by sectarian conflict, but ruled by Shiites closely linked to Iran, will also line up with Al Assad. Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah is already engaged in battle in support of the Syrian regime.
On the other side, and also in pursuit of regional dominance, the Sunni bloc — under a vigorous Saudi leadership and including Turkey and Qatar — will like to see a US-led military intervention depose Al Assad. Any alternative regime in Damascus will likely be majority Sunni dominated. Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states are exerting political and financial pressure on the West to act.
Obama is a more reluctant warrior than Bush, but his credibility as a world leader is at stake since he boxed himself in with his famous “red line”. If he does not follow through on his threats to attack Al Assad’s forces, if the use of chemical weapons is proved, Obama’s critics’ claims that he is weak, indecisive and too “left wing” will gain credence.
If Obama takes the military route, he has two options: He could do as president Bill Clinton had done in 1998 after Al Qaida had bombed the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Clinton ordered a series of swift cruise missile strikes on key military targets (in Sudan, which was harbouring Al Qaida). This will appease public outrage and deliver a warning. Or, Obama can lead a full-blown military confrontation.
The former is more likely, but not without danger. With nothing to lose, Al Assad may deploy chemical weapons in even greater quantities against his enemies. Syria’s Deputy Information Minister, Halaf Al Maftah, has warned that a western strike will result in an attack on Israel by joint Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian forces. In that event, the West will inevitably become more deeply embroiled in defence of Israel and Al Assad will emerge a regional hero in the struggle against US imperialism.
Everything points to an imminent attack on Syria and the Geneva 2 conference, which may have led to a political settlement, seems all but forgotten. The US, Britain and France have all declared themselves ready following last Monday’s summit of their top generals, and their Saudi and Qatari counterparts, in Amman. The three western powers — which played a key role in Libya — are massing a substantial naval and air force presence in the region. Strategically placed Turkey has said it will join a coalition against Al Assad even without a UN Mandate. Everyone in the Middle East is holding their breath, waiting for the first missile — which may open the gates to hell.
However, we need to step back from the brink.
Does anybody really want to see the whole region engulfed in sectarian violence which has already destroyed Iraq? Can the world contemplate another global conflagration?
It is not melodramatic or alarmist to say that a Third World War could break out over Syria. If there is incontrovertible evidence implicating Al Assad in chemical attacks, his allies should be pressured to call him to account. The superpowers are lined up on opposite sides of the conflict and the prevalent economic conditions, which began in the US in 2008, are eerily familiar too. Global economic crises, emanating from America, preceded both the World Wars.
A regional solution can be sought, even at this eleventh hour. The Sunni bloc, led by Saudi Arabia, should recognise its error in assuming that Al Assad will be easily removed — like Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali in Tunisia, Gaddafi or Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Sunni bloc should strain every political muscle to bring both sides to the negotiating table. It is easy to ignite the flames of war, but almost impossible to extinguish them before everything has been consumed.