March 25, 2013

Thinking about the unthinkable in Syria

Syrian conflict is moving slowly but steadily toward the inevitable – the end of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. External support to rebel forces is growing. They receive more aid and better training than before, and have taken the first larger city from the regime. Moreover, France and the UK are pushing to lift an arms embargo on rebels; CIA is rumoured to consider drone strikes in support of rebels, and NATO countries are conducting a contingency planning on Syria. At the same time, Syrian Army continues to suffer from exhaustion and defections.

Syrian conflict is moving slowly but steadily toward the inevitable – the end of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. External support to rebel forces is growing. They receive more aid and better training than before, and have taken the first larger city from the regime. Moreover, France and the UK are pushing to lift an arms embargo on rebels; CIA is rumoured to consider drone strikes in support of rebels, and NATO countries are conducting a contingency planning on Syria. At the same time, Syrian Army continues to suffer from exhaustion and defections.

With the external efforts on the rise to tip the balance in favour of rebels, al-Assad must feel cornered and desperate. Since autumn 2012, he has increasingly resorted to a strategy of punitive strikes, intimidation, and terror. Syrian Air Force’s tactics testify to it. In December 2012, after rebels claimed kills of over 100 aircraft, al-Assad’s forces launched their first missile strike against Aleppo. It is not clear whether SCUDs were used due to high attrition rate of regime’s air power or whether al-Assad wanted to send rebels a terrifying message of his readiness to use all weapons at his disposal. Syria is believed to have one of the most sophisticated chemical warfare programmes in the Middle East. The prospects of the use or proliferation of chemical weapons have evoked Syrian statements rejecting the use of these weapons in civil war, and international warnings not to use them.

Nevertheless, there has been a flow of news about growing readiness to use, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Western intelligence services have allegedly spotted Syrian preparations to use nerve gas sarin. Syrian defectors have claimed that al-Assad’s regime is willing to use chemical weapons if pushed to the corner. Finally, there have been claims regarding the actual use of non-lethal chemical weapons, and of their more lethal variety. The latest incident, that Israeli minister of intelligence and strategic affairs Yuval Steinitz characterised as “apparently clear” use of chemical weapons, has triggered a UN investigation. Some experts acknowledge the effects of an unknown chemical agent on victims, but question at the same time whether international conventions would categorise the used substance as a chemical weapon.

It looks quite probable that Western powers would take a resolute military action in response to a deliberate use or loss of control over chemical weapons by Syrian regime. On the other hand, if Syrian regime resorted to chemical warfare, its effect would be devastating not only for Syrians, but for the neighbouring states as well.

Saddam Hussein’s regime killed 100 people and injured 4,500 by dropping only seven 250 kg bombs with mustard gas on Sardasht. Halabja, where 5,000 lives were lost almost instantaneously, was bombed with 200 bombs with mustard and nerve gas. In addition to direct casualties caused by chemical weapons, one must consider the panic that would spread among population and probably cause a mass exodus of refugees. This, in turn, would add to an already immense pressure that Syrian conflict exerts on neighbouring states. In other words, the extensive use of chemical weapons against rebel-held areas and cities would be a final gesture worthy of a megalomaniac and absolutely desperate dictator.

The crunch time in Syrian conflict comes closer and closer with every passing day. What sort of a man is Bashir al-Assad? What has he learned from the examples of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and others? Should we or should we not support increasingly Islamist Syrian rebels? How long can the region withstand the impact of Syrian civil war without losing its stability?

Perhaps, we should establish what the lesser evil is, and accept it as our best choice. ‘Crisis management’ is contradiction in terms anyway, and ‘war’ is a way beyond ‘crisis’. Clausewitz has said that there is no theoretical limit to the level of violence that fighting sides might use against each other in war. At best, the intensity of war is moderated by politics. However, in civil wars, the rationality of politics is frequently tossed out of the window by historical grievances, blind rage, and ever-deepening suffering and pain.

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