It’s very hard to assess the chemical attack on the Damascus district of Ghouta, but as always the best approach is to ask who benefits.
How does the al-Assad regime gain from the universal condemnation of the atrocity? On the face of it, there’s no benefit. Already, France is rattling the sabres, demanding military intervention, but even that might be nothing more than a sour reminder of the Iraq fiasco. The United States vilified the French when they refused to support the ludicrous pretext that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and declined to join the even-more ludicrous coalition of the willing.
Perhaps the latest statement by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius is simply a goad to the United States: If it is proven, France’s position is that there must be a reaction, a reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force. Or it might be a nostalgic reassertion of France’s former imperialistic role in the Levant.
Interestingly, the reaction from the US has been considerably more muted, but the irony of the French position won’t be lost on the State Department. Those Freedom Fries will be repeating for another few years.
On the other hand, perhaps Bashar has calculated that the game is worth the candle and that he cannot tolerate rebel occupation of a Damascus district commanding vital supply lines. Who knows? He might have decided to gas the whole lot of them, which would be no surprise, given the lack of scruples his family has shown over the years when it comes to mass murder, but it would be stupid, and Bashar al-Assad is not famous for his stupidity.
Who else benefits? Perhaps it’s the rebels, but then you have to define precisely who they are.
Are we talking about the nebulous Free Syrian Army or are we talking about al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda backed by the Saudis? If the Assad regime falls, these are the people who will take control of Syria and turn it into a rigid Islamic theocracy. The Free Syrian Army will be dispersed to the winds.
The web is complicated. Al-Nusra has been responsible for murdering Kurds in the northern regions of Syria, and is reported to have links with Turkish intelligence and with the Iraqi Islamic groups fostered by the ill-advised American invasion of that country.
Does the Free Syrian Army benefit from the gassing of the people in Ghouta? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely to have been behind it. The fanatics of al-Nusra, on the other hand, can’t be said to have any more scruples than Bashar al-Assad when it comes to mass murder. If this gains them a political advantage, they’ll be happy enough to take it.
Does it benefit Hezbollah, the dominant military force in Lebanon? Certainly not. As a Shia group, their sympathies lie with al-Assad, who is an Alawite. In all likelihood, their intelligence services are already aware of who was behind the attack, and if it turns out to be Bashar, Hezbollah will be hopping mad. They want him in power and the last thing they need is an international move to depose him. This puts them in the same camp as the Syrian Christians, Kurds and Druze, all of whom recognise pragmatically that it’s better to live under a non-religious despot than an Islamic extremist. Like his father before him, and like Saddam, Bashar has no interest in a person’s religious affiliation.
Do the Israelis benefit? Possibly. It might be in their interest to have a Sunni government in Syria, constantly at odds with a powerful Shia militia in Lebanon, weakening each other and keeping pressure off Israel.
So cui bono?
In the long term, not Bashar al-Assad, though he might have resorted to it for short-term tactical reasons.
The Free Syrian Army? No.
Al-Nusra? Yes. Certainly.
Hezbollah? Absolutely not.
Israel? In the medium term, yes, if it helps to establish an extremist Sunni government in Syria.
There you go. I have no more information on this than you do. We still have no hard facts, but it will be at the far end of absurd if these gas attacks provoke a Western intervention that results in the installation of yet another extremist religious government in the Middle East.
Bashar al-Assad is a nasty piece of work. He’s a despot, just like his father and just like Saddam Hussein but since when has it been the business of the so-called West to depose despots? They never did it with Stalin or with Mao. They don’t attempt it now in North Korea. They didn’t do it with Pol Pot — that role fell to the Vietnamese. They don’t do it with the vile Saudi royal family and they didn’t do it with Gadaffi. They didn’t intervene when the genocide was taking place in Rwanda, and they placed an arms embargo on the Bosnians despite Mladic’s ethnic cleansing.
They wouldn’t have done it with Saddam Hussein either if he didn’t happen to have the oil that Dick Cheney’s Halliburton wanted to get their hands on. As the hysterically funny right-wing American commentator, PJ O’Rourke, remarked in Holidays in Hell, what’s the Kuwaiti national anthem? Onward Christian Soldiers.
Here’s a horrible question. Is there an obligation on the world to unseat tyrants?
I don’t think so, unless we’re prepared to govern the territory ourselves, which we will never do.
No matter how vile the despot, all an intervention achieves is to open the doors to worse tyrants.
I don’t like it. You don’t like it, but that’s how it is. Feel free to suggest a better way.
Previously on Bock the Robber