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Updated: May 12, 2013 16:04 IST

Beware the lemming impulse

Prem Shankar Jha
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The war against the Assad regime has passed into the hands of al Qaeda affiliated jihadis. Obama should resist the pressure to intervene on their behalf

Israel and the West are on the brink of making a suicidal mistake in Syria, and only one man can prevent it. That man is the United States President, Barack Obama. As recent reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post show, President Obama has become increasingly aware that the war against the Assad regime in Syria is now almost entirely in the hands of extreme Islamists of whom a third are foreign jihadis with close links to al Qaeda and its affiliates. Their goal is to create a theocratic, Islamist state in Syria, much like the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama is standing firm. But instead of reining in his allies and changing course in Syria, he seems to have chosen, or drifted into, the far more dangerous course of giving them an orange light to intervene on behalf of the rebels. His reasoning seems to be as follows: a victory for the jihadis is now almost certain. Should this happen, Syria’s vast quantities of chemical weapons will fall into the hands of the West’s most relentless enemies. Israel, in particular, will be in mortal peril. A direct intervention may therefore be necessary to destroy these stocks before the Islamist rebels, whom they have themselves nurtured, come to power.

The excuse

The orange signal was given by the White House in its reply to a query from two U.S. Senators whether the Assad regime had used chemical weapons at any time in Syria. “Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin.” Although the conclusion was hedged by caveats that were so elaborate that they made the conclusion virtually meaningless, the letter gave Britain, France and Israel the excuse they were looking for. While the European Union has been playing ‘you first’ with the U.S., Israel has jumped the traffic light. According to Russia Today, which is immune to the spins of the State department, Whitehall and the Qai D’Orsay, in the early hours of Sunday, May 5, 40 Israeli warplanes bombed a research centre, military installations and a convoy being prepared to ferry chemical weapon-loaded missiles to the Hezbollah in various parts of Damascus, killing at least 300 persons, mostly civilians.

But this wholly unprovoked act of war, lamely endorsed by the U.S., has backfired. Barely 48 hours after the attack, Carla del Ponte, chief U.N. human rights investigator, announced that based on visits to the site and interviews of victims being treated in hospitals in Damascus, she had very strong, if still not clinching, evidence that the Sarin gas attack in Damascus had been carried out by the rebels. Ms del Ponte has so far not reached a similar conclusion about the attack on Khan al Assal outside Aleppo, which took place a few hours before the attack in Damascus, but there is conclusive evidence that this attack too was launched by the rebels. What is more, the evidence has been provided by the rebels themselves and was in the public domain for more than a month when the White House wrote its damning letter. Only two conclusions can be drawn from this: either the U.S. National Security Agency somehow failed to make the connection or, for reasons known only to itself, the White House chose to ignore it.

The proof is contained in five videos that were posted on Youtube by the rebels at Khan Al Assal. The first, posted on February 12, announced that they had begun an attack on the Police Academy located in the village. The second, posted on March 3, claimed that they had captured most of the academy. The third, crucial video was posted on March 18 within hours of the chemical attack on the village. In it, six armed men belonging to a group called Khan al Assal Freemen made the following statement: “The regime tried to target the liberated police academy with what is thought to be a scud missile, but the missile did not reach its intended target, and fell on the government controlled areas, where Assad forces are positioned”.

This story would have been far-fetched at the best of times, but turned out, in fact, to be pure fiction. For, on March 18, much of the Police Academy was still in the hands of the government. The proof of this was furnished by two other videos, posted on March 25 and March 29. The first showed rebels fighting police snipers at the academy. The second showed a pick-up truck mounted with a heavy machine gun firing at the house of the commandant of the academy. In short, as late as March 29, the Police Academy had not yet fallen.

For the rebel claim to be true, on March 18, Mr. Assad would have had to sanction the firing of a scud missile loaded with phosphorous-based chemicals into a vast compound of which some, possibly quite large part, was still held by his own forces, without any concern for what this would do the morale of their brothers-in-arms, not to mention world opinion. This is just about inconceivable, for while Mr. Assad may have been a tyrant, he is certainly no fool. If this is ruled out, the only way the chemicals could have landed on the village was by the rebels delivering them with a bomb or a rocket.

Crucial issues

In their anxiety to break down Mr. Obama’s reluctance to intervene, Britain, France and Israel have deliberately glossed over three crucial issues: first, if the Assad regime genuinely felt that it had no option but to use chemical weapons in order to survive, why would it choose to do so in two minuscule attacks that it had to have known would do no harm to the rebels but hand them a huge propaganda victory and bring the wrath of the world down upon its head. Second, if Syria had used tiny amounts of chemicals in order to test the West’s resolve, why would it defeat its own purpose by claiming that it was innocent, and demanding an independent and impartial U.N. enquiry?

The third and most important question pertains to the motive: who stands to gain if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons? The three countries are avoiding it because they know the answer: for Mr. Assad, it would be suicide; for the rebels, it would open the way to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. For, as Steven Erlanger reported in the New York Times on February 3, while Mr. Assad may not be winning the civil war, he is not losing it either.

The rebels, on the other hand, have everything to gain from convincing the world that he has used chemical weapons. Since late last summer, when the stream of deserters and fresh recruits dwindled to a trickle, they have been alternately threatening and cajoling the U.S. and the EU to give them heavy weapons to fight Mr. Assad’s armed forces. In winter, as the stalemate deepened and more and more Syrians turned against them, they began to entreat the U.S. and the EU to intervene directly to “save the Syrian people from further misery.”

Convincing the U.S. that Mr. Assad is preparing to use chemical weapons could be their last throw of the dice. Mr. Obama is insisting on cast iron proof not because he lacks the nerve to carry out his threat but because he knows that the war against Mr. Assad has passed into the hands of foreign fighters who belong to what French expert Olivier Roy calls a circulating army that travels across the globe from jihad to jihad, and considers the U.S. and Israel the two great Satans of the modern world. Britain, France and Israel too are aware of this. But rather than admit that they have made an earth-shattering mistake, they have taken refuge in different forms of make-believe. Cameron and Hollande continue to cling to the belief that it is possible to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rebels and, by intervening directly, ensure not only the downfall of Mr. Assad but the victory of the former over the latter.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is playing an even more dangerous game: as he made clear in a BBC interview on April 18, he is fully aware of the danger that a jihadi victory will pose to Israel, but has embarked upon the dangerous course of helping the rebels overthrow Mr. Assad (to cut the supply lines to Hezbollah) and then creating (in effect annexing) a ‘buffer zone’ in Syria to keep the jihadis out of Israel.

Apart from his blinding loss of memory of how disastrously a similar forward policy played out in Lebanon in the 1980s, Mr. Netanyahu should realise that when the victorious jihadis turn, as they inevitably will, towards Jerusalem, they will come not through Syria but Jordan. If Jordan falls, Israel will be completely surrounded. Its future will then become impenetrably dark. Only Mr. Obama and his new team, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, seem to be even remotely aware of this. The fate of the Middle East therefore hangs by a hair.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

This article has been corrected for an editing error.

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I do not agree that Qaeda affiliated Jihad-es are leading the rebel
fight.If you see the nationalities of Jihad-es from Arab and Islamic
countries who were trained Afghanistan and Pakistan there few from
Syria. Syrians by nature are secular people. It was the prolonged
fighting and suffering of the people which has driven them to the
hardliners. There is no drinking water, electricity and food.
Millions of people who can not flee and trapped are lining in the
parks and the streets. Situation very serious. It looks like the
destruction in Europe seen in the Second world war.
India should speak out. We must blame USA and Russia for the current
situation in Syria.
If they cooperate a solution can be found to end the misery.
India must put pressure on Russian.

from:  mani
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 22:43 IST

This article appeared at a time when USA has finally agreed to the demand of Russia to stop assisting hostilities against Assad regime in Syria. Yesterday John Kerry agreed to what Russia has been demanding for a long time : to stop external intervention in Syria.
Prem Shankar Jha and The Hindu can certainly take credit for advocating this policy all this while.

from:  Janarddan
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 18:35 IST

A good and relevant article by Mr Jha, however nothing that i didn't already know. It is widely known that Al Qaeda backed groups are trying to sieze power in Syria, and unfortunately the saudis and other Arab states are providing their Sunni brothers with weapons. The USA needs to tread carefully as should they end up providing military aid to the rebels, then they could be nurturing the very same groups that the Americans may end up fighting in a future War on Terror scenario.

from:  Vipul
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 15:12 IST

one of the finest articles of the hindu.
i want to thanks the writer.
According to me, first, USA should clear it's stand on Syria's current scenario,But, it's tough situation for US also.
it's real test for US president Obama.
second, India and other BRICS countries should take a responsible stance on Syria, because they are rely on middle-east for oil and other petrochemicals.
third, why UN is silent till now? they need to take relevant steps.
fourth,these attack by jihadis can't be tolerated in any forms, innocent civilians are dying, and use of sarin gas is a proof that they can use chemical weapons. what will happen if all weapons of syria will come under jihadis. this is a serous problem.
Are we going towards Third World War?

from:  Sunny Adak
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 13:58 IST

There is little that can be predicted with confidence about Syria, save for the fact that the days of President Assad are now numbered. But if the writing is clearly on the wall for the world´s last Baathist regime, it is far from clear what will follow. The opposition is fragmented, and united principally by opposition to President Assad. Without President Assad there is little to suppose that Syria won´t descend into a civil war of the sort which fragmented Lebanon a generation ago.
Meanwhile, although the rebels have made gains, their internal divisions have inhibited the emergence of a cohesive opposition, of the sort Egypt´s Muslim Brotherhood was able to provide in that country´s revolution.
On top of all this, even though President Assad may not last much longer, there remains some internal cohesion in the regime which will make it difficult to dislodge. A large bureaucracy, not to mention an extensive security apparatus, is composed of regime loyalists who need to be wooed over to the opposition side. At the moment, the opposition shows few signs of such compromise. But that sets the scene for a long and brutal war on attrition.
Russia and the US seem to gradually converging towards a diplomatic orientation that would see the opposition engage dissident elements in the regime. This could avert the worst case. But for both countries, which were once rival superpowers in the region, the result would signal yet another diminution in their regional presence.

from:  kurt waschnig
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 13:04 IST

An emphatic article from Mr Jha. The conclusion is ... "Long term loss for Israel."

from:  Lord Wasim Reza
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 12:25 IST

Awesome article with good insights into what is happening in Syria. Although, author believes that Al Qaeda and jihadist forces would take over Syria with US and it's allies support, it seems unlikely. US and its allies may use Al Qaeda and Jihadists just the way they have used them so far in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other countries. Also it would be interesting to see how Syria would look like at the end of war. Would it be a failed state like Afghanistan or like Libya where US and it's allies will have all have to face the same consequences they are facing now e.g. Attack on US Embassy in Libya and subsequent killing of it's ambassador at the hands of "Rebels"

from:  Bhushan
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 11:37 IST

Israel has so far not shown any interest whatsoever in supporting the
"rebellion" against Dr Assad's govt. In fact, Israel has departed from
its ally America's premise and has consistently maintained that Dr
Assad has taken steps to secure his chemical weapons arsenal and has
not used them till now.
From Dr Assad Israel has got total stability along the Syrian-Israeli
border which was till recently guarded by some of the best units in
the Syrian military. Dr Assad, as the facilitator of weapons transfers
from Iran to Hezbollah, was able to regulate their activities to an
extent (for less than altruistic reasons, true).
There could be other interests at play in Mr Netanyahoo's BBC
interview, namely the recent rapprochement between Israel and Turkey
brokered by the USA. Its well known that Turkey is an arch-enemy of
Iran and is seeking to use the "rebellion" to trim Iran's influence.
Turkey is governed by an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood for whom
its logical to attack a Shiite power

from:  Aritra Gupta
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 11:35 IST

Thanks to Mr. Jha for an interesting article on the stand taken by the west and Israel on the Syrian crisis. The prospect of the Syrian rebels gaining political and military advantage in the middle east is deeply disturbing for global security and even more so, for stability in the middle east. This comes at a time when the west is already deeply anxious about Iran's nuclear program and trying its best for non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

It would have been better if the writer could have touched upon these topics as well -

1. India's stand on Syrian crisis, since the extent of India's energy security depends on stability in the middle east for oil imports.

2. What effect might pursuit of military intervention by the west in Syria have on India's foreign policy to Syria?

3. Will a UN resolution supporting military intervention by the west be met by opposition from Russia and China based on Carla del Ponte's evidence? What is the likely possibility?

from:  Srinivas Kirthy
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 08:58 IST

Excellent article for providing insights to the real mystery that veiled
around syrian war.May mr.obama and his team will be wary about the
situation and take control over entire middle east to protect whole
world from jihadis .even indians should help if any needed by us
administration .

from:  nandan kumar
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 07:52 IST

True description of state affair of Syria and connected world.But the
author misses one great fact about the hunger of war of America and
there by to increase influence in middle east,a long term policy.They
know for sure after Assad,jehadi's are easy to eradicate .Rather
Jehadi's are as if they tools for America bad or good at
present.Obama's hands are tight.He is helpless and weak.Kerry and Hagel
are from old lot. They see in the above way only..Russia is quet.Iran
is not yet ready.In this modern world might is only right.Big are
swallowing smalls......Look at Libya,Iraq,Egypt what they were and what
they are.Humanity has no place in today's world.Look at UN ! Look at
how people live in Africa.
Again Obama is weak.He can not dare to resign.On every occasion he has
compromised his principle,Guns,Immigrants,Bank reforms,Afghanistan you
name it.After Syria,Burma and Bugladesh are in the
line.Women,students,money and weapons are the tools.

from:  Ashok
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 02:49 IST

A very good article indeed.

Western Media is still propagating that they are helping civilians /
saving civilians and trying to give a democratic government to Syria and
all such non-sense, while the truth is "west is involving itself in
syria and involved itself in other middle east countries just for their
personal interests and nothing else".

from:  Saba
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 02:15 IST

Prem Shankar Jha's dire warnings are hollow as he been a strong supporter of Assad for the year or so. His prediction that Islamic terrorists would get hold of chemical weapons and that Jordan would fall next are scare-mongering without any hard evidence. Obama, Kerry and Hagel would do well not to listen to him. Come to think of it, they will likely never know of this article's existence.

from:  ashokr
Posted on: May 9, 2013 at 02:04 IST
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