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VIEW: Syria’s Detox Debate

Published in Economic Affairs / Oct 2013 issue

‘The Newsroom’ stumbled upon evidence of a black op codenamed ‘Genoa’ in Season 2 where Sarin was allegedly used, but by Obama and not by Syrians. The show employed a premise that flitted with the potential fallout should evidence of war crimes perpetrated by an American administration were to surface, and bore no resemblance - accidental or otherwise, to events that were to unfold a few weeks later.

The fictional Sarin saga would be resolved just as the Syrian episode was gaining traction. Syria’s use of banned Chemical weapons would send America’s Commander-in-Chief scrambling to the war room to devise an appropriate response, give Russia an opportunity to practice their ‘mediator of the month’ skills, and put Assad on a makeshift dock.

The world gets ready to batten down the hatches in the midst of all the political point scoring. Because the decision to use force that could potentially cripple a nation is not without side effects; the creation of a hydra that feeds off the ethnic/sectarian divide and further destabilizes an already troubled region being the most obvious one. ‘It’s not complicated’ Kerry intones; Sarin was used, Assad has them, ‘ergo, Ipso, facto, Columbo, oreo’ – it was ‘he’. America has cried WMD one too many times and are now having some trouble rallying enough pitchforks.

Syria, however does possess biological weaponry since it recently agreed to become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, effectively placing its stockpile under international control. And Obama seeks the destruction of all, though Assad says it will take a year and cost a billion dollars.

By pleading guilty to possession, Syria fits in that ‘Slam Dunk’ profile mistakenly used for Iraq. Since 189 nations have officially said no to WMD’s, there are real consequences to using such banned substances, or keeping them around the house for that matter.

So far the regime has not admitted to using Sarin. Clever. But Sarin was used. Whether it was by Assad, ‘a man of no credibility’ as Kerry so eloquently muttered or the rebel factions made up of ‘hard-line Islamists’, as IHS Jane sees them, alongside the Free Syrian Army, or mercenaries, is a matter of some dispute. The nature of the fight changes with the results of these findings as does the tempo of the war drums.

But the fellow holding up grisly images of dead Syrian kids in Congress to sell war has gotten hold of an outdated narrative, given how ordering forced spring cleaning of Assad’s house shows a multi-tiered strategy at play with altruism at the very bottom of the scale. The act reportedly benefits regional players, neutralizes a potential threat, sends a ‘behave or else message’ to rogue states and pacifies some very worried neighbors - not necessarily in that order. If innocents get saved in the process - excellent but the role of savior is seldom listed on foreign policy agendas.

There is Israel’s finance minister who is not too happy living next door to a regime engaged in civil war with a cache of WMD’s stashed in the basement. The Arab League (22 member states) would not mind seeing Assad knocked down a few pegs and pro-Syrian regimes like Iran curtailed. To that end they stand together with Israel, and maybe Turkey and in an awkward twist of fate, the Al-Qaeda.

Between America’s call to arms and Russian’s plea for peace the military option is on pause. Their diplomatic dance-off buys Syria time. The discussion oscillates from strikes to disarmament to a mutating battlefield. The plot thickens when Russia steps up with evidence allegedly provided by the Syrian government that conveniently implicates the rebels. It curdles when they waved aside the ‘smoking gun’ which they say is actually an out of service missile and quickly point to the ‘Made in USSR’ sign. They can do so because the original UN report notes the presence of surface to surface missiles but their investigation reportedly has limited scope; it determines the ‘what, where & when’ and not the ‘who’ (Amanpour). It is open to interpretation since America has yet to share intelligence that conclusively proves Assad’s guilt.

The ‘whodunit’ part remains unresolved prompting the former Cold War adversaries to join in the manhunt. Russians are dismissive of UN findings and continue to glower; they want attacks before 21st August investigated, specifically the March 19th 2013 incident. Both the US and Russia are playing for high stakes and their respective self interests might colour their world view.

The Middle East waits with bated breath as clouds of war darken the horizon, limited or otherwise. The fear of escalation is real. Resident analysts aren’t worried given these are meant to be surgical strikes and not a regime change – on paper at least. Syria is nothing like Iraq they insist. It is difficult to predict the contours of an Assad free Syria, but there are plenty of takers in the form of jihadists mixed in with opposition waiting in the wings. That rebel factions are already turning on each other prompting Turkey to close a vital border and giving extremists a foothold, shows the aforementioned hydra prophesy coming to pass.

The United States, notwithstanding the string of Middle Eastern / South Asian misadventures might believe that a credible threat of military strikes brought Assad to his senses. Obama will not take them off the table. The Russians, despite their ominous warnings, would reportedly not have interfered with America, had Syria refused to play nice. Does it also mean they will not run interference on the ground like they may have done in Afghanistan for some good old fashioned payback?

The HBO show that pursued the elusive trail of WMD’s on the Pak-Afghan border which could topple an administration and jeopardize America’s standing in the free world speaks to the seriousness of WMD related charges. Framed against a stark chemical warfare laced backdrop, the specter of Syria’s lethal arsenal upstages its domestic woes. War must always be the last resort. ‘Detox’ plans, on the other hand can be handy negotiating tools, notwithstanding their Russian origin.


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