Syrian activists risked their lives on 20 August and the two following days, after the regime’s chemical weapons strike on the western and eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. They were busy taking horrific and saddening pictures of children killed by poison gas. However, it is likely that the United States president, Barack Obama, hoped that these activists had failed in relaying the images of this crime, which history will record as an atrocity against humanity.
Prior to this attack the Syrian regime carried out countless atrocities, with Scud missiles and barrel bombs, killing 1,360 people, the same number of people who were killed by chemical weapons. It destroyed thousands of buildings and neighborhoods in Aleppo, Homs, Hama and elsewhere. It had earlier used rockets tipped with chemical agents; perhaps the attack in March in Khan al-Asal near Aleppo was the first such attack that was revealed to the public. Some people do not rule out the notion that some chemical weapons were given to the opposition, so that it would use them. This was so that the regime could justify then destroying these rebels with the same weapons later on. The number of victims would range between 20 and 30 people, in this or that location, prompting western capitals to talk about “claims” on the use of chemical weapons and the need to conduct United Nations investigations to verify the claims. This was despite the fact that these countries knew the truth of the matter, thanks to their intelligence agencies and satellite photography.
Their response, and especially that of the US, followed the rule that Obama had earlier set down: “America cannot be responsible for ending atrocities wherever they take place in the world.”
The images of the atrocities in Ghouta did not allow Obama to continue his policy of retrenchment, which his administration has followed when it comes to the Middle East. This policy has been based on the priority of ending the failures that he inherited from the Bush administration in Iraq, and his readiness to withdraw from Afghanistan at the beginning of 2014.
Bashar Assad embarrassed Obama even though the US president looked the other way when it came to many of the Syrian president’s crimes, as he relied heavily on this policy of American retrenchment. Assad forced Obama to abandon the policy of not being responsible for atrocities wherever they take place in the world. Assad also embarrassed America’s rivals and the regime’s allies, led by Russia and Iran, which did not deny the regime’s responsibility for using chemical weapons when they opposed its being punished by a limited military strike that Washington has decided on, in order to save face. Moscow and Tehran are aware that their bid to use the Syrian crisis to benefit from Obama’s retrenchment in the region as a result of Washington's weak policies does not mean that any small power in the world can mock Washington in the game of nations, to the degree that it is weakened by doing what it did in Ghouta, with the situation becoming an international precedent that the regime in Syria or any other force in any other country can use on a wide scale later on. This would be happening during a time of change when it comes to the principle of non-proliferation of WMD as a basis of international relations.
Assad alone did not embarrass Obama. Instead, there were Syrian opposition activists who succeeded in getting out the photos, who were able to do this. This explains the comments by Ban Ki-moon that Syria represents the biggest challenge in the world today.
Even so, the matter is not about ethical or moral considerations (despite their importance), which were ignored by the international community after it had looked the other way when it came to the regime’s crimes. This international community has lived with the regime’s record of assassinations, annihilation and demeaning humanity for decades, especially during the uprising in Syria.
When it comes to the story behind the stupid mistake of using chemical weapons, we hear that when the rebels were successful in penetrating areas of rural Latakia, which saw some rebel factions commit massacres in Alawi villages, there were leading figures in this part of Syria who were angry at the head of state’s failure to keep his promise that this area would remain isolated from the opposition, and that it was a impenetrable fortress. Instead, the rebels entered, and the regime's response was that it would be retaken in a matter of hours. This is what happened, when Syrian Army forces used a scorched earth policy to drive the rebels out of these areas that they had occupied. Leading figures in the coastal region and of the Alawi sect were then told: “This region will remain a red line. We will totally annihilate them from now on.” This version of the story goes on to say that meanwhile, the opposition sent elite, foreign-trained fighters into the outskirts of eastern and western Ghouta. Then, intelligence agencies from countries friendly to the regime told it where these troops were concentrated. The regime then used chemical weapons and carried out its threat, with the resulting consequences for civilians.
If this story is true, the considerations that obliged the regime to carry out the attack will lead to consequences that threaten the current US-Russian agreement on continuing the effort to work for a political solution, under the Geneva 2 conference umbrella, and allow the regime to wreck this solution. Perhaps Moscow's awareness that the regime was breaking the international arrangements was agreed to beforehand, provided that it cover an agreement with Iran as well, whose outlines have yet to become clear. This explains the statement by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that his country would not enter a war, if it breaks out. Most likely, the Russian leadership is trying to limit the damage from a western response, such that the military strike will itself be limited, as Washington has promised. This would allow the reviving of efforts to convene Geneva 2.
As for this limited strike for Washington, it is connected to restoring its respect and credibility after it said chemical weapons were a red line. If this does not lead to Geneva 2, Washington hopes that the war in Syria will continue, but without the use of chemical weapons..
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