Damascus bombing limits risk of Intervention in Syria over Chemical Weapons
For almost five decades, the Baath regime – led by Hafez al-Asad until 2000, succeeded by his son and current president Bashar al-Asad – in Syria seemed to have no rivals. There was a revolt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama from 1976 to 1982, which, despite the violence, never managed to produce an existential threat to the Asad regime. In the two years of civil war that effectively begun in April 2011, one of the most important Arab capitals, Damascus, has become a battlefield and the regime has been accused of using chemical weapons.
This could serve as the pretext for NATO intervention and the ultimate demise of the regime; however, the Syrian situation is highly complex and there are no quick solutions. On Monday a car bomb exploded in Damascus’s affluent Mezze quarter, inhabited largely by regime supporters or by those who have much to lose in the face of an opposition success. The attack targeted Syria’s Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halaqi, who survived; one of his bodyguards was killed. This was surely not the first attempt to remove the leading figures of Asad’s regime. Last July, a bomb killed two ministers and Assef Shawkat, Syria‘s deputy defense minister and Asad’s brother in law.
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Reports have not yet clarified whether or not the bomb was remotely detonated or whether it was deployed by a suicide bomber. Nevertheless, the attack resembles others staged in Syria and attributed to jihadist groups such as Jabat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda. The methods are eerily similar to those used in Iraq, where the civil war between Shiites and Sunnis continues. The explosion in Damascus, detonated just as the FBI and other US Government agencies are grappling with a possible Chechen al-Qaida or Jihadist connection, in the wake of the recent Boston Marathon bombing, and the vulnerability it implies more than a decade after the start of the war on terror, serve as an additional deterrent, if any more were needed, for the United States or its allies to embroil themselves in the Syrian civil war.
For all the rhetoric – especially from such leading Republican figures as Senator John McCain – the United States will remain reluctant to offer any weapons to the insurgents, as it did for the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980’s against the USSR; much less would the USA intervene militarily. Last Friday, the ‘heat’ on the Asad regime intensified over evidence that the regime had used chemical weapons, sarin gas, against the rebels. Despite talk of an impassable ‘red line’, which would necessarily trigger some sort of reaction, Washington remains very reluctant to get involved in Syria; even a no-fly zone remains outside the realm of possibilities for the time being. Apart from the Iraqi experience, the White House wants better evidence. France and the UK are more hawkish, but any intervention would first have to be preceded by a UN ground mission to determine whether or not chemical weapons were used. Moreover, Washington is engaging in more sophisticated diplomacy than what led to the Iraq war.
The White House has been quietly trying to rekindle talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, ahead of any other Middle East adventures, especially one involving the Syrian regime, one of the Palestinians’ principal allies. To this effect, Israeli President Shimon Peres will be visiting Pope Francis in Rome tomorrow, sending a further hint that the peace talks are being dusted off for a new round. Israel’s opinion certainly matters when it comes to Syria. While even Benjamin Netanyahu, considered a ‘hawk’, would have preferred for a stable regime in Asad’s hands, there is no question that he will have to go; perhaps as part of a negotiated settlement, national unity government with the opposition or some other arrangement, but he will have to go. Asad’s demise would weaken Syria’s control (often acting as a brake) on Hezbollah in Lebanon and strengthen the position of radical Islam within Palestinian groups such as Hamas at the expense of the more secular Palestinian National Authority (PNA) led by Mahmoud Abbas with which Israel has some form, however limited, of dialogue.
Washington, Paris, London and other Western capitals will want to prop up Abbas and the PNA before taking concrete steps to remove Asad. Not surprisingly, then, the chorus of opinion from NATO capitals today over Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons was of cautious denial. France said it had no certainty that Syria used them, while the Americans and British have only” clues’. The car bombing against Syria’s prime minister may have been the nail that seals this latest chemical weapons case. The world wants regime change in Syria but it seems not at any cost and not just any regime. NATO has learned some lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently Libya. It is not enough to want regime change, what kind of regime change is more important.