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Beware the lemming impulse

Prem Shankar Jha
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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.

President 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)

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


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