3 questions to Marwan Bishara on Syria: Dealing with the chemical imbalance

Marwan Bishara discusses the implications for the international community of potential chemical weapons use in Syria.

obama egypt statement
According to Al Jazeera's Senior Political Analyst, "if it was proven that Assad did use chemical weapons en masse, then President Obama does have a major strategic challenge to attend to, whether he likes it or not" [AFP]

What are the motivations and repercussions for the use of chemicals weapons in Syria? 

If accurate, this will prove to be one of the most bizarre twists in the conflict between the regime and the opposition.

After all, why would Assad order such an outrage when he has already been warned by the United States that any such folly would be a “game changer”?

And why would he carry a large-scale chemical attack at a time when an official UN inspection team is on the ground in Syria investigating the last alleged chemical attacks?

Besides, Assad’s military has fared well in recent weeks and months, and is arguably in no need for such an outrageous attack. One that brings bad publicity and mounting international pressure, as it continues to use heavy weaponry against the opposition.

UN condems alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria

On the other hand, such an attack could be part of a strategy – chemical or otherwise – to tip the balance decidedly on Assad’s side.

After all, poison gas is both a potent military and psychological weapon; it’s an “efficient” means that kills and terrorises the masses – the perfect combination for a regime that couldn’t care less about international indignation.

A chemical weapon is not only used out of desperation; it can also used rather bombastically, as in 1988 when used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja.

Assad’s main concern is to be seen as a strongman, and if the road to victory goes through infamy, so be it.

In other words, the use of chemical weapons could result from missing the basic ingredients of political and human decency. Point being, the regime attempts to overwhelm the opposition use of retail violence – excuse the expression – through wholesale killings.

His regime diplomatically protected by Russia, could be sending the unequivocal message that nothing can protect its detractors from its wrath, and that the end justifies the means.

While such a step raises the stakes, it also maximises the regime’s short-term military gains.

Arguably, it’s also used as a way to send a message to Israel and the West that Syria has the means to retaliate against future bombardments.

As expected, there are already calls for an international probe, but any such investigation would take long if it takes place at all. Meanwhile, the deaths and terror embarrass Western powers, and exposes the Syrian opposition as impotent. 

What explains the impotence of the international community to act on Syria? 

Over the last half a century, the international community’s will to act in such circumstances has been dependent on the power and will of the United States.

But the Obama administration has made it abundantly clear in the past that it was not going to intervene militarily in Syria despite the political noise from Congress and the Washington pundits.

The conventional wisdom being, the White House is preoccupied by its domestic agenda, and terribly reluctant to intervene militarily after the fiascos of Afghanistan and Iraq, especially when none of its vital interests are threatened. 

Indeed, until recently, the opposite has been true. In other words, not intervening seemed to serve US interest regardless of the human cost to Syrians.

There was no harm in watching from the sidelines as Syria, long America’s nemesis and Israel’s foresworn enemy, is terribly weakened, while Iran and Hezbollah are humiliated and losing support in the Arab world. 

However, sustained Russian and Iranian support to Assad has turned the tables on the opposition and on America’s calculations.

If Obama was reluctant to intervene or provide support for the opposition that ends up in the hands of “extremist Jihadis”, today, Washington has every strategic reason to save face. 

But President Obama’s administration is choosing his foreign battles carefully and prefers not to be drawn into a dirt fight with Assad, Putin, and Khamenei.

And that would have been the normal, even wise, thing to do if America wasn’t the Middle East’s leading power and didn’t command the largest military fleets in the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. 

But it does. And when the president continues to speak of America as “the indispensable nation”, that means it has international responsibilities as a hegemon, and cannot afford to be humiliated by the likes of Assad and Khamenei.

What then are we to expect from Washington when its own red lines are crossed? 

If it was proven that Assad did use chemical weapons en masse, then President Obama does have a major strategic challenge to attend to, whether he likes it or not.

By invoking the use of chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime, the interventionists put more pressure on the Obama administration to act on its warning.

Inside Story – Syria: Chemical warfare?

There is mounting pressures on the administration to intervene from the likes of Senator John McCain, who’s leading the pack with his particularly populist agitation for intervention. He believes if Washington’s lack of action is seen by Syrians as a betrayal, it could come back to haunt America in the future.

Also the Syrian opposition, supported by Turkey and the Gulf countries, would like to see Washington intervene. Indeed, their political leaders seem too eager to underline the chemical aspect of the tragedy than to highlight the terrible human cost.

The US media has reported that the Pentagon is fine-tuning America’s military plans to react in Syria if or when the president gives the order.

A similar precedent that stands out is US/NATO military intervention in former Yugoslavia within the “coalition of the willing”, but without a UN Security Council Resolution. Seventy eight days of bombing Belgrade and other Serbian installations in the spring of 1999 was seen as legitimate response to the mass killings in Kosovo.

It remains to be seen whether President Obama orders at least a limited strike that is meant to punish the Assad regime without toppling it.

For now, the president continues to advise caution. He has so far argued that the use of poison gas against civilians is a red line, not for the US alone, but rather must be so for the international community as a whole. 

In other words, the US shouldn’t act alone; it’s up to the other custodians of international law at the UN Security Council to act responsibly. 

But Russia and China are anything but indignant at the terrible repression in Syria. If anything, they believe it is Washington and its regional allies that bear the utmost responsibility for the escalation and violence in Syria. 

With such recrimination, expect the UN Security Council to remain deadlocked, and the mass killings to continue in Syria, and expect more of the same calls for the convening of the long-awaited international conference on Syria.

When neither the US nor the international community takes their own red lines seriously, why would Assad? The biggest change thus far has come from the UN Secretary General, who was concerned, but is now deeply concerned. Or as the US president put it, the alleged chemical attack is a big event of “grave concern”.

Judging from their initial statements, I doubt the horrific death of another thousand civilians has fundamentally changed the position of those who’ve been either complicit or indifferent to the killing of one hundred thousand Syrians.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara