Today’s world headlines are dominated by Syria to the northeast of Israel and Egypt to its southwest. Just over 50 years ago, desiring a shared destiny, these countries merged between 1958 and 1961 to form the United Arab Republic. Due to a present filled with violent civil unrest on a grand scale in both countries, their paths look more similar today than at any time since their union, though if I were a betting man I would say their parallel paths will be short-lived due to a game-changing act by Syria last week.
Shortly after the Arab Spring reached Syria, the end of the 40-year-long totalitarian rule of the Assad family seemed imminent. However, with Russia and China’s active support at the United Nations, Moscow supplying weapons, and the Mullahs of Iran sending its Revolutionary Guards and directing its regional proxy, Hizbullah, to fight for the Assad regime, Syria has withstood a surprisingly committed fight by anti-Assad rebel forces. Western leaders, with President Obama “leading from the rear” (now that is an oxymoron) have been straddling the fence about intervention.
Whether Western indecision was fueled by suspicions that rebel forces would be worse for Western interests than Assad or wary to act because of mistakes it made throughout the Arab Spring, the West lacked resolve and clarity while more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed. By crossing a universal red line and doing the unthinkable by using chemical weapons, Bashar Assad may have done the unimaginable and actually galvanized the West and incited it to action.
According to the international organization Doctors Without Borders, three hospitals near the Damascus suburb where the attack took place reported about 3,600 people admitted in the space of three hours after the reported attacks with nerve gas-type symptoms, 355 of whom died as a result of exposure to neurotoxins.
In an address at the State Department on Monday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry declared it “undeniable” that last week’s devastating attack was committed by the Assad regime. In not-so-subtle terms he made clear that there would be repercussions.
“Make no mistake,” Kerry warned, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”
Leading this “scrutiny” in Syria was a team of U.N. experts. While attempting to reach the nerve gas attack site to examine victims, the clearly marked official U.N. convoy came under sniper fire. Opposition activists blame pro-Assad militiamen for the shooting.
Western allies of the U.S. were also giving indications that there would be a response. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared, “All the options are open. The only option that I can’t imagine would be to do nothing.”
Britain will certainly join the U.S. and France in any action against Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed a commitment to take action against Assad. A source from the Prime Minister’s office said: “We intend to show that an attack of this nature will not pass without a serious response.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague added, “We cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity and there are no consequences.” The British Royal Navy plans to deploy several destroyers to the Mediterranean Sea, where they will join the U.S. Sixth Fleet in preparation for an anticipated attack.
Though it is heartening to hear the three leaders of the West, the U.S., Great Britain, and France, speak out with conviction promising severe repercussions for this barbaric act, there is one major reason not to expect a devastating response: Russia.
Moscow will continue to try to thwart attempts by the West to gain U.N. support for action against Syria by acting in concert with China and utilizing its veto power on the United Nations Security Council. This will have little practical effect as the West has acted without first receiving the blessing of the U.N. before and assuredly will do so again in response to Assad’s using chemical weapons. The expected response will be a surgical strike by Tomahawk missiles fired from a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean Sea.
The major problem for the West is answering the question, “What comes next?”
While detesting Assad and his regime, the West has never embraced the Syrian rebels and for good reason. The dominant rebel group, Al-Nusra, is a scion of Al- Qaida and opposes the West. Without a preference the West’s ambivalence will dictate a course of inaction. Moscow in contrast is fully committed to Assad who represents Russia’s regional interests and will intensify its commitment to its client, the Assad regime in Syria by increasing its supply of advanced weapons. The West has repeatedly shied away from direct confrontation with a Putin-led Russia and will continue to do so in Syria, allowing more Russian weapons to enter the country, perhaps off-setting this by supplying the rebels with more weapons as well. Sounds like Afghanistan, in which U.S.-supplied weapons and training were eventually turned against the U.S. and its interests.
Claims by the White House a year ago that the use of chemical weapons is an inviolable line that cannot be crossed have now been put to the test. In fact the line has now been crossed to devastating effects and this demands a severe and punitive response. The U.S. and the West cannot be feckless in its response to Assad’s barbarism but I fear the response will be hard but not devastating. This will embolden Russia and Iran who are standing on the sidelines watching and evaluating the resolve of the West.
Your move, U.S., France, and Great Britain: The world is watching.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.