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The Fog of the Syrian Civil War

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The use of chemical weapons by Assad is still in question, and instead of focusing on military intervention, the US should be supporting a negotiated peace between both sides

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In Syria on Monday, UN chemical weapons inspectors met with and took samples from victims of apparent gas attack in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. But on the way, the UN team members say that a sniper attack then hit a vehicle in their convoy. No one was injured. The results of this mission weigh heavily on whether or not the U.S. will directly intervene militarily in Syria, since President Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would force his hand to intervene.
Now joining us to discuss this latest news is Omar Dahi. He’s an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and an editor at The Middle East Report.
Thank you so much for joining us, Omar.


NOOR: So, Omar, can you lay out the different scenarios that are being thrown around to explain this apparent poison gas attack? On one hand, it seems that there was a gas attack carried out in Syria in the suburbs of Damascus, but many people have argued that it wouldn’t make sense for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons, because the Obama administration has said that they would use this to justify direct military intervention.

DAHI: Sure. Well, there are two basic questions that have been discussed. The first is: was there actually a chemical attack? And the second is: if it did happen, who did the chemical attack? And I think by now, given the different reports, given the report issued by Doctors Without Borders that hospitals they supported did treat individuals who appeared to suffer from toxins and so forth, there is increasing evidence that beyond a doubt there was some sort of chemical attack involved.

Where it gets more complicated is the accusation of who did it. And there are different scenarios that are being discussed. One of them is by the government and other observers who, as you pointed out, argue that the government has nothing to gain from this chemical attack, that they seem to be winning the war and have been able to do a lot of destruction through conventional weapons. There’s a sort of international equilibrium that does not seem to be willing to intervene or ready to intervene, and that the only thing that might upset this equilibrium is such a chemical attack. Therefore it would not make sense to do so.

On the other hand, accusing the rebels of doing so also raises some questions about plausibility, because if the rebels are capable of carrying out such a large-scale attack, and if they have the means to do so and they are murderous enough to unleash them on among civilians, then why would they choose to do it against rebel-held territory, and why would they not use it against the regime forces? Why would they not try to turn the tide of the war? That’s also being a question that’s being raised.

A third scenario and fourth scenario that I’ve heard, one is that the government did the chemical attack in response to what it saw as a perceived or real escalation and advancement by rebel troops, that the rebels have been managing to turn the tide. And there was a report in Le Figaro, French newspaper, that U.S.-trained or U.S. special operations officers are in Syria and assisting the rebels, so that it might be an attack on those groups. A fourth plausible explanation is that the command structure within the regime itself is disintegrating and that perhaps the order did not come from the top leadership but came from someone else down the chain of command, or maybe high up within the top chain of command but reflecting a split in the very top leadership on how to handle the decision-making process. And so it could have been basically a signal from the regime that they’re willing to go all the way, that they’re willing to use whatever means at their disposal to end the war if the rebels continue making advances.

All of these are speculation, and using logic or reason is really not the way, I think, to establish guilt or culpability in such a crime. I think such a crime should have an independent investigation. The UN team that’s already in Syria should be allowed to investigate and the facts to [incompr.] for themselves, as all the crimes that have been conducted the Syrian uprising. The chemical attack was horrific, but so has been the over 100,000 people being killed and million displaced. These are other crimes. And all of the crime should be investigated, no matter who did them.

NOOR: Now, if it is confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that chemical weapons were used in Syria, would it become legal for the U.S. to intervene? And what are the alternatives to a military intervention?

DAHI: Well, in terms of legality, international legality would depend on a Security Council resolution. Only then under international law would it be legal to intervene, and that is unlikely to happen. I think the intervention, if it happens, is, according to the different reports that you read, likely to happen through long-range bombing, Tomahawk or cruise missiles launched from very far away that are outside the reach of the Syrian defense system. And I think they would do more harm than good. I mean, we’ve seen in the past two years that every level of escalation, whether it came to the militarization of the uprising or when it came to economic sanctions, there’s been—after every massacre and every destruction unleashed by the regime, there’s been a call to do something, and that something has caused more good than harm. And you can see that clearly in the case of economic sanctions, that it really hurt the most vulnerable people in Syria and have not really hurt the regime as much as it hurt the ordinary population, because the regime has resources that it has access to and it has support.

In the case of military intervention, I think you’re likely to see a further escalation in the rate of destruction, especially since the Syrian regime and its allies in Iran, primarily, and also in Russia, have been signaling that they’re willing to stick with the regime till the very end. So there’s no guarantee even if there’s a strike that it will precipitate some quick solution. In fact, the most predictable outcome is that it will really increase the level of destruction, invite further retaliation by the regime and its allies, and perhaps trigger a much wider war, which is why I think despite a lot of the noises that you hear calling for intervention, despite what you see as preparations for such intervention, I don’t think it’s going to be a large-scale attack. I still don’t believe that’s going to happen. It might. Who knows?

But there are alternatives that are also not very easy, and I think it’s important to really note that there’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s difficult choices that need to be made. The best solution is really a political settlement, a settlement that ends the violence as quickly as possible, a negotiated solution. That sounds very implausible to a lot of people, and perhaps with every subsequent massacre it becomes more difficult. But the way to try to end the violence is to start a process to end the violence, not more violence. And we’ve seen in the last two years the logic that military solutions will end the crisis has proven to be false tragically time and time again. The best way is to demand a political settlement, to demand all sides end the cycle of violence, and to really pressure for some sort of negotiated outcome, which is going to be a process. It’s not going to happen in one day. It’s going to take confidence-building measures so that each side doesn’t think that the other side will stop the agreement and start attacking them, so that each side has trust that they will not be annihilated if they surrender. I see that as the best possible outcome and what we should all be demanding.

NOOR: And let’s talk about the U.S.’s role in what’s been happening in the Middle East, but also go back in history a little bit. Foreign Policy magazine just highlighted the hypocrisy of the U.S. when it comes to the use of chemical weapons as it revealed how the U.S. knew Saddam Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history against Iran during their war in the ’80s. And instead of drawing attention to it, the CIA actually gave them a hand and assisted in those attacks.

DAHI: Absolutely, and you don’t just have to go back to Iraq. You can go back further in the postwar period. Who has used chemical weapons in attacks and nuclear weapons? In fact, it’s been the U.S. in the case of Japan, in the case of the Vietnam War, where chemical and biological weapons were attacked in sort of the Indonesian war, the Southeast Asian war. And so the U.S. has no moral ground to lecture and preach on others about chemical weapons.
The U.S. furthermore has had a destructive foreign policy in the Middle East, being allied to human rights dictators and human rights abusers, allied to Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have a long history either of committing human rights, or in the case of Saudi Arabia, really a totalitarian, despotic government.
In the case in Syria itself, the U.S. in my opinion has not been the primary mover. I think to a great extent there has been some learning from the Iraq War debacle that the U.S. has not rushed into intervention. It doesn’t see it in its own interests to intervene.
And I think in the case of Syria, the primary movers have been the Gulf states. They are the ones who have assisted the rebels. They’re the ones who in many cases allowed the militarization of the rebel side or facilitated it. And you have other regional players that have resisted the regime. So in that sense, I don’t think that the U.S. foreign policy in the case of Syria has been as destructive as it has been elsewhere in the Middle East, and I think there is a division within the elites in the U.S. on what to do.

And you’ve seen the media coverage actually compared to the case of Iraq, compared to the case of Afghanistan. If you’re really honest about critical thinking about this coverage and what has—comparing the two cases, you’ll see much more of a divided opinion and a mixed picture when it comes to Syria. There’s a lot of apprehension. And I think that’s a good thing. I think the strike by the U.S. is also unpopular. A recent poll that I read showed that only 9 percent of U.S. citizens are in support of U.S. direct intervention into Syria.

And I think that is to say that we should be seizing on this and supporting it or supporting the idea of a political settlement and pushing back against the tide of military direct intervention as the only solution. As difficult as it seems and as murderous as the Syrian regime is, we should not participate in a course of action that will increase the destruction, but trying our best to minimize the violence. And a political solution is the only way to do that.

NOOR: Omar Dahi, thank you so much for joining us.

DAHI: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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