The world has been shocked by the use of chemical weapons in Syria; perhaps, not so much by the fact of the use, as by its being used by a government against its own people. The Syrian regime has once again trotted out the old claim that the weapons are being used by the opposition.
It is worth noting that the chemical attacks have come at a time when the country is being visited by UN inspectors, who were originally meant to investigate other attacks, but who have now been mandated to investigate the latest attacks, which are reported to have killed at least 322 people, and as many as 1,729.
It is also worth noting that chemical weapons are classified as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), along with nuclear and biological weapons. Chemical weapons are the oldest, having been first used in World War I, and they will mark their centenary next year. Nuclear weapons were not used till World War II, in 1945, while biological weapons have so far never been used, unless the anthrax scare immediately after 9/11 is counted (and even if counted, that was not by a state). Chemical weapons are thus by far the oldest of the WMDs, and are also the only ones used in the region allegedly, having been used by Iraq against Iran in the Gulf War back in 1987. Those were the only WMDs Saddam Hussein was shown to have used, though his overthrow by the USA in the second Gulf War is supposed to have been because it thought (wrongly, as it turned out) he had WMDs. Using chemical weapons is supposed to have been a ‘red line’ for the USA, and if its use was to be shown, the USA would have no excuse to avoid something it wants to, sending troops into Syria, and that too in aid to the rebels.
There are a number of reasons for the USA avoiding this. One is war-weariness, particularly after its interventions in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA does not want to invade another Muslim country. Second, Israel does not want the Syrian regime to fall. That implies that Israel does not like the look of the replacement for the regime. As the USA’s main interest in the region has become the security of Israel, it means that Israel approves of the current Syrian regime. Linked to this is the fact that the successor regime is likely to be Islamic. It might even attempt to revive a Caliphate, something which would challenge the post-Ottoman, and Western-backed, settlement in the region, which allowed the creation of Israel. It should not be forgotten that the pro-West elements of the resistance has been shouldered aside by what the West claim are Islamic fundamentalists, complete with backing from al-Qaeda. Whatever the reasons for this, it must not be forgotten that the USA does not see any interest served by al-Qaeda gaining a safe haven on Arab soil. It also should not be forgotten that al-Qaeda also looks to the re-establishment of a caliphate as its ultimate political objective.
Also important in this issue is the attitude of the other permanent UN members. Of them, only Russia has any strong interest in preventing the USA from entering Syria. Because it realises that using chemical weapons would mean Syria having crossed a red line that the USA could not ignore, Russia has joined the chorus of voices claiming that Syria did not use chemical weapons. However, matters remain at a very preliminary stage, and with the inspectors not yet having reported to the Security Council, the members remain free to still say what they like about the deaths in Damascus. At one level, the logical, the presence of the inspectors alone, would be enough to make Syria not use chemical weapons. However, it may be a sign of desperation, as it would seem that nothing else was working, and thus the regime was trying whatever weapons it had. The ruthlessness shown so far, with 82,000 to 106,000 killed before the Damascus deaths, indicates that the regime has the ability to use chemical weapons if it thinks that will get it victory. The fact that it had recently been getting some successes would encourage it to use whatever means were necessary to obtain a victory. According to its own calculation, the crossing of the ‘red line’ could be papered over, or brushed aside, if the USA (and Israel) had to deal with the regime in Damascus. However, if the regime was ousted, it would be given no credit for not crossing that line.
Perhaps, the power with the biggest problem is the USA. It does not want to intervene. It also has realised by now that Syria is battling Islamic fundamentalists. Russia, with which it has a number of difficulties, does not want the regime replaced. Neither does Iran. Neither does Israel. So the USA finds itself on the same side as Iran in its attempt to keep Israel happy.
Also, while Russia and, probably, China are ready to call the UN inspectors’ report biased if it does confirm that chemical weapons were used, the USA would lose out because it would be forced to intervene. On the other hand, if it was to ignore a positive report, it would thus invite all the countries of the world to defy it, especially those countries militarily more powerful than Syria. This becomes crucial for two regional reasons. First, the confrontation with Iran is far from over. Second, the USA is to carry out a drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014.
The USA must appear strong in its negotiations with the Taliban. It must not forget that its Taliban interlocutors, through their al-Qaeda links, will be familiar with a Syrian chemical-weapons perspective that will not be available to those depending on the regime for information.
This is a situation in which Pakistan must be very careful. It must not say or do anything that could encourage the USA to invade Syria, but, at the same time, it should not fall for the offer by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, made during his recent visit to Islamabad for Independence Day, for Pakistani forces to go to Syria as peacekeepers. It is interesting that Ban sought Pakistani troops for not just Syria, but also for Egypt. It is worth noting that, at the time he tried to get the commitment, the UN had no peacekeeping mission authorised in either country. Apart from that, though there are obvious advantages to having forces from one Muslim country posted in another, the advantages are for the UN, not for Pakistan. Going by the standard of national interest that all UN members are supposed to observe, it does not make sense for Pakistan to take part in any such exercise. However, it is a useful indication of the direction of thinking, not just at the UN, but also of the USA.
It should not be forgotten that this peacekeeping idea was invoked just before the second Gulf War, and then too, Pakistan had to turn down an offer to get involved. The USA may well have no alternative but to send in its own troops, thereby marking another chapter in an entanglement in the Muslim world that started with its invasion of Afghanistan. It would not be entirely unfamiliar, as Marines have been in neighbouring Lebanon as recently as the 1980s. However, this might be the first time that US troops would be entering without a local ally.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.