Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tossed to the winds

Syria looks set to be locked between two withering forces: The US and its regional allies, on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

The title of this article may seem rather late in the day to some. After all, Syria was tossed to the winds some time ago when it was struck by one of those waves of the so-called Arab Spring, or when the Syrian government failed in its response to it, leading to the outbreak of a comprehensive, multifaceted civil war. Syria is no longer a state in the accepted sense of the term. It may still have a president, a capital and a flag. But apart from that, the country is actually divided into separate areas of control, with some under the ruling regime and its backers, others under the enemies of that regime, and yet others under allies of the regime but in pursuit of their own agendas. When you have a country where there are hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of wounded and half a country’s population displaced, any authority that claims to represent the Syrian people is, in fact, totally lacking in legitimacy. That it claims to do so while propped up by Russian and Iranian weapons is a kind of political joke.

Nevertheless, the title still is appropriate when the winds are in the nature of a hurricane. This time, the origin was the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people in Khan Shaykhun, in the province of Idlib. In so doing, the regime not only violated the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria signed in 1997, it also violated the commitment it made in 2013, after it used this weapon, to eliminate all chemical weapons from its arsenals.

At the time of writing this article, 84 people were killed and 55 wounded in the Khan Shaykhun massacre. The number of casualties may increase. Amazingly, this time, Russia and Syria could not even get their stories straight. Moscow has accused IS of using the chemical weapon. Syria claims that one of its fighter planes struck a warehouse that the Syrian opposition had used to store chemical weapons. Regardless of which story gains prominence, the history of the Syrian regime testifies to its responsibility. Above all, the Al-Assad regime dropped thousands of barrels of chlorine gas during its scorched earth campaign in Syria. The Syrian authorities were not defending Syria or the Syrian people. They were killing and maiming Syrians without the slightest humanitarian compunction. Evidently, this time, Bashar was feeling strong now that he regained Aleppo with Russian help and the new US administration had issued messages to the effect that he could remain in power during the interim period after which the Syrian people would determine their fate.

The chemical weapons attack against Khan Shaykhun will toss Syria to the winds more than ever because it triggered a chain of changes in the international position on the Syrian crisis. It is hardly a secret that the new administration in Washington planned to take a flexible stance on its relations with Moscow. This was evident since the beginning of Trump’s electoral campaign and, again, after he won the elections and was then sworn into office. Not only had Trump expressed his admiration for Putin as a strong and respected leader, he said that he could agree with him on many issues in the world. He declared such positions, moreover, in spite of strong opposition from within the Republican Party, the majority of which continues to view relations with Russia from the perspective of the Cold War era between the US and the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1989. The Khan Shaykhun massacre added a new factor. The US president condemned this act as revolting and something that the civilised world could not ignore. Proceeding from here, the UN Security Council began to split over a US-UK sponsored resolution that could serve to sanction the Syrian regime but that seemed likely to meet Russia’s exercise of its right to veto. Therefore, the US bombed the Syrian air force base from which the planes that bombed Khan Shaykhun had taken off. The US president had no alternative but to proceed from the abovementioned condemnations aired via Twitter to the actual use of military force.

With this step, more powerful gales lie in store for Syria, especially given the likelihood of escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow. It is commonly believed in Washington that Trump will press further and try to impose one or more safe zones in Syria. This will require the presence of a US military force in order to invite the forces of other regional powers to take part. However, this means that Syria will be caught between two camps, one consisting of Syria, Russia, Iran and Hizbullah and the other consisting of the US, Kurdish and Arab Syrian opposition forces, and the forces of other regional parties. It is impossible to say where clashing cyclones of this sort will lead and end, apart from to say that Syria will be crushed in the middle.

On the other hand, as delicate and fraught as the current situation is, perhaps the gales will subside into gentler breezes. Perhaps Trump felt that he had to use military might in order to appear stronger than his adversary and predecessor Barack Obama whom he had always accused of being weak and whom he named for US weakness in Syria and Iraq. Now that he delivered the message to Russia and the rest of the world that the US president means what he says, Trump (who has not yet retracted his position on the Syrian president) may be more prepared to come to the negotiating table while Moscow, which had been notified in advance of the US missile attack against Syria, now realises the limits of US patience under Trump. In all events, whether Syria is caught between a Russian-US polarisation or between a Russian-US convergence over Syria, the Syria of Bashar Al-Assad has its days numbered. Perhaps the only arms it will have to run to are those of Iran and Iran’s Hizbullah extensions.

History sometimes proceeds in strange and unfamiliar directions. When the curtain opened on the Syrian crisis, no one would have expected to see the amazing scene that is unfolding now. Syrian history had always told the story of the flight from division and partition to “the unity of the Arab nation with the eternal message”. That was the message of the Baath Party. But the party that sought to unify the nation from the Atlantic to the Gulf was essentially a sectarian based party that expressed the interests of a small group. In all events, the attempt to escape forward proved a failure. But with the escape backward, through the attempt to cling to power regardless of the numbers of victims and the numbers of cities destroyed, the winds of war did not leave much of Syria left.

How odd that the Syrians who bewailed the Sykes-Picot Agreement because it left Syria smaller than it should be may be on the verge of facing an even more painful reality once the winds of war die down. At that point the lay of the land will be different and the configuration of the pieces on the chessboard will stir confusion for yet another century, as well as a lot of grief.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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