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Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria. Who Benefits?

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.

syria chemical attack

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

The Most Bloodiest Man

Favourites Politics World

“The Most Bloodiest Man” — Lebanon Waits in Fear as Syria Convulses

Mahmoud comes from the mountains up North, but he has lived in the city for forty years, most of them working as a barman pulling pints of foamy Almaza bière à la pression.  He has served many nationalities but never bothered much about learning other languages – even English.  He has some handy phrases such as ‘another round?’ ‘one for the road’  ‘closing time’.  He is good at mathematics and rarely gets a tally wrong when the time for l’addition comes.  He has cautiously watched all the comings and goings since 1975 and has survived many hegemonies in West Beirut; Palestinians, Mourabitoun, Syrians, Israelis, Americans, French, Amal, Hezbollah and even the Phalange for a few crazy days in 1982. Mahmoud rarely expresses views on politics.  But this year is different.

Hafez al-Assad

The volume on the Arabic news channel Al Arabiya is turned off and not being able to read the script I have to ask Mahmoud about the shockingly gruesome footage clearly coming from Syria.  Mahmoud begins to rattle off in an Arabic English mélange the lists of demonstrations and casualties and atrocities.  Mahmoud is clearly unhappy.  We explore the subject gently.  This is dangerous ground. Syria dominates Lebanon in many ways still, even though the troops are gone since 2005.  The al-Mukhabarrat intelligence services are rumoured to be still present and rumours surface occasionally of people disappearing to jails in Syria.  The present Lebanese Government is dominated by the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition led by Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal.  The Syrian Government has been dominated by the Shiite Alawite minority for over forty years.  There are many refugees finding their way across border despite efforts to stop them by the Lebanese authorities.  Guns are being smuggled across the border to the opposition.  Everybody is worried.  Mahmoud is Sunni and he is worried.

We talk gingerly about the Assads —  Hafez, Bachar, Rifaat and Maher, father and son and uncle and brother.  Assad the father, says Mahmoud, ‘is the most bloodiest man in the whole world’, ‘more bloodiest than this Hitler or this Khadaffi’, neither of whom of course were Shiites.  Mahmoud is still outraged about the Hama massacre of 1982 when Government forces allegedly killed 20,000 in crushing a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ahmad is more circumspect.  He is a businessman in his late fifties, speaks good English, and like anyone of that age in Ras an Beirut should be treated with respect as a survivor of many years of appalling events.  Ahmad even remembers the notorious Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel inWest Beirut in 1982 with a glint in his eye because of course Bashir was blown to bits a few days later by a bomb planted by a fellow Christian.  Ahmad has been to Europe and America and even owns companies in the US.  However he hasn’t been to East Beirut since the 70s and has never been in the South.  ‘Once to Byblos, once to Jbeil, once to Saida and Tyr, why go more than once to these places, we have all we need here inWest Beirut’.  Even though he too is Sunni, Ahmad is worried about what will happen if Assad is overthrown.  Ahmad’s information is that Assad has 2 billion dollars and that this will help him hold on to power for two years.  You get the feeling that Ahmad would prefer Assad to hang on because the unknown is so frightening.

Bashar al-Assad

A friend who works for a European government in Damascus thinks the collapse might come sooner.  Conscripts have had their service extended.  They are deprived of mobile phones, satellite TV and internet.  They have been promised one weekend’s leave over the next two months and there is no telling how they will react when they find out what has been going on.  There are already reports of groups of army deserters operating as guerrillas in border areas.  This friend thinks that Bashar meant to reform when he took over but he was too weak to take on the entrenched Alawite officials in Government who are terrified of the vengeance that change might bring.  Now nobody seems to know how to prevent a catastrophic civil war.

Ali drives me in Beirut when I am stuck.  He is an engineering student and a Shiite from the southern suburbs.  His district was wrecked by Israeli bombing in 2006 and is undergoing major redevelopment led by Hezbollah. He is guarded on Syria but talks about Muslim extremists misleading people into joining protests against the regime.  Even Lebanese Christians are worried what will happen to all minorities, Christians, Kurds as well as Alawite if the Assad regime collapses.

Peace in Lebanon is fragile.  Between 150,000 and 200,000 are believed to have died between 1976 and 1990 and up to one million wounded.  The population in 2010 was 4.3 million.  That is a lot of hurt in one small country.  Peace in 1990 was enforced and maintained by Syrian forces, a Pax Syriana.  If Syria collapses Lebanon will shake.  Nabil is an Egyptian who has lived in Beirut for 28 years.  He will stay.  He says that there is nowhere else for him to go.  Ultimately that might be the best hope.  That the Lebanese too will realise that there is nowhere else to go other than their present fragile peace.   Whatever happens I am fairly confident that Mahmoud will still be pulling pints and his clientele will continue their intense analysis of politics and life.  Inshallah.