Reflections on the week past
There has been a lot of outrage and condemnation of the use of poisonous (supposedly nerve) gas during the bombardment of the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Deservedly so: The stockpiling and use of chemical weapons is banned in Syria (since 2013, when the government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and subsequently started handing over its chemical stocks) and an appropriate action must be taken against those responsible.
This is all clear. What is not clear is who is responsible for what has happened. In spite of wild speculations that evoked the waves of emotional talk exacerbated by the shocking imagery of suffocated children there is not much evidence at this point—neither of the kind and source of the chemical weapons used, nor of those who used it (deliberately or not) in Khan Sheikhoun. And I guess this is rather irrelevant question in the game of geopolitics played in front of our eyes. Whatever happened and whoever did it, the events of this one week have changed the positioning of parties to the Syrian war, at least for the time being. And that is the only thing that matters in this game.
Action. Things took off immediately after the airstrike on Tuesday, 4 April by the Syrian Army resulted in the gas poisoning and numerous deaths and injuries among civilians. The media deriving their stories (quite uncritically) from the third (and vaguely defined) sources and the politicians relying on those reports were quick to declare the “crime against the humanity” (which undoubtedly the use of chemical weapons is) and as by default pointed their finger at the regime of Bashar al-Assad as a culprit. The next day Nikki Riley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was all around with the pictures of victims and emotional speeches at the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Interestingly, her claim seemed to target Russia more than Assad’s regime: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”
Reaction. President Trump reacted sharply. In his first response (at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday 5 April) he stated that Assad had “crossed many, many lines”. It did not take him long to move from statements to action: on Thursday, 6 April the U.S. President authorized the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield Shayrat “in retaliation after a chemical attack against civilians”.
Counteraction. Russia’s response followed immediately. President Putin called the U.S. strikes a violation of international law. In a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Russia suspended the Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents with the U.S. aimed at avoiding collisions in the Syrian airspace and has called on the UN Security Council to hold (yet another) emergency meeting “to discuss the latest developments.”
Whose move is next? What is it going to be about? Whatever it is, at this stage of the game the short combination described above already have scored good points for some, opened opportunities for others, while altering more promising horizons for those who thought to be in more advantageous position before the recent developments.
The chemical weapon attack in Khan Sheikhoun has had instant implications on a number of important dimensions of the Syrian war. It immediately reversed the tolerance towards Assad as remaining in power and called again for his unconditional removal. Second, it undermined the negotiation process between the regime and the opposition—both the Russians and Turks-facilitated in Astana and the UN-led Geneva talks.
Next, it put in confrontation the Americans and the Russians (given that they rejected each other’s narratives about who was responsible, and later on strongly disagreed about the response) and thus risks undermining their (not an easy otherwise) cooperation in fighting the Islamist militants (both al-Qaeda and ISIL) in Syria and in the region. And altogether it incredibly complicated the course of the war in Syria, which seemed moving towards some sort of settlement.
Of course, there shall be an international independent commission. But it will take time. And its findings may not necessarily be conclusive. The complexity of the Syrian war and its potential to directly influence a broad array of regional and international security issues do not allow for taking much time however. The events in Syria and around are unfolding at high pace, and with this dynamics and the implications of each and every move on multiple directions there is an imperative to clarify certain and very important issues right away.
If not addressed right away, those issues (whatever important they deem at the point of occurrence) lose their significance being displaced or overshadowed by a new wave of events in Syria or elsewhere in the region and across the world. We live in incredibly event-intensive times, after all. So it well may be that next week will see Americans and Russians renegotiating their positions with calm pragmatism they customarily exhibit, while others waiting for their turn to make adjustments. The chemical attack in Idlib (sadly so) would become the fact of history, as did many other no less brutal and outrageous acts of this war.
Okay, one would enquire, if this is the case then what is a point in establishing the responsibility for using the chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. I would argue that there is a point. Because whatever happens in Syria is not necessarily about Bashar al-Assad, whatever the official rhetoric by the politicians from all sides. Interestingly, this concerns not only external actors but even the domestic opposition groups.
The endgame going on in Syria looks beyond Assad—it is about who is going to control which and how much territory in Syria once the war ends. (As for the regime change… it is more about stability and regional interests as seen by influential external players than about human rights and democratic aspirations of local activists. Example? Well, is there anyone thinking that the regime of al-Sisi in Egypt is any better than the rule of Mubarak seen from this point of view?) Therefore, it makes sense understanding what is going on behind the scene.
One way to find out the culprit(s) is to understand who is interested in such a situation and who benefits from it. And if you look at how things stand from this perspective, you face a paradox: It appears that the Assad regime is the least interested party, among all the internal and external, state and non-state actors taking part in the war, directly or through proxies. All have some unsettled issues, big and small. All but Assad (at least prior to this week).
Things were going perfectly well for Assad and his aides recently, both in terms of military and territorial gains (from the Islamist militants and the rebels alike) and with regards to political positioning (as vis-à-vis the opposition so internationally). Why on earth would Assad “score an auto-goal” (to borrow from Elijah J Magnier) which may reverse the final outcome of the entire game at the time when he is firmly moving towards the win anyways? What is the necessity of using particularly chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun? Was it so strategically important, if not imperative to use? There are a lot of questions to be answered. Just few possible scenarios of what has happened.
Assad. One cannot dismiss any option unless it is proven unjustified. Therefore, the possibility of the Syrian army conducting the chemical attack remains on the table (with all the doubts I raised above). However, all the possible explanations to Assad’s motivation offered thus far sound naïve and even more, desperate to find at least something that sounds convincingly reasonable: “Why did Assad use nerve gas in Idlib? It’s impossible to know. Maybe it was a signal to an increasingly aggressive Israel that he still had chemical weapons, or maybe it was a warning to Russia that he wasn’t a pawn to be traded in a grand bargain with Trump. But most likely, it was a reaction to the free hand he was seemingly given when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a few days earlier during a visit to Turkey that Assad’s future ‘will be decided by the Syrian people’ — meaning that the United States no longer demanded his departure.”
Coincidence (or good/bad luck for players, depending on their positioning). As always in this life, there is a possibility that this was a sheer coincidence—this is the explanation that Russians are promoting (that the “regular” airstrike by Syrian Army has by accident, randomly hit the militants’ chemical weapons storage while bombing the militants’ general munition warehouse, also used for supplies to Iraq). With little success though, if to judge by the other sides’ rejection of this narrative. Moreover, Tillerson went as far as to suggesting to reporters on Thursday that, “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.” Tough an accusation.
Third parties. I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but this time around the timing, the selection of subject and even victims (more than twenty children among the overall reported seventy-four people killed), and the immediate and unequivocal reaction—all point to a possibility of well-thought out, in advance planned and timely executed plot.
Whoever stands behind it (we may never learn for sure), one lesson to learn is that this war has tied up in one knot so many interests of too diverse actors that ending it is not going to be an easy task, if at all possible.
I recently argued in one discussion that we may have to redefine the notions of “victory” and “the end of war” when it comes to Syria (and perhaps some other places, such as Libya) so that to be realistic of what we as international community (considering that there is still a common interest to qualify as “the community” with regards to this war) actually can and aim at achieving. A year ago, I wrote about Syrian war warning that it was becoming a “perfect war” with no control over it and hence, no peace in sight. A lot of things have changed since, but only tactically. Strategic interests of major players in this geopolitical game remain unchanged. The attack in Khan Sheikhoun was just another reminder.
That is why it does not come as surprise that experienced politicians saw a window of opportunity for them to re-engage and to attempt at changing, if not reversing, the power balance in Syria (which was shaping towards favouring Russia, Iran and its proxies, and Turkey to certain degree). What else would you read from a statement made by the EU President Tusk made via Twitter: “U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the U.S. to end brutality in Syria”?
One of commentators this week has concluded his article by drawing the following lesson from the alleged gas attack of Khan Sheikhoun, claiming that “In general … what happened in Syria on Tuesday is a reminder that those at greatest risk of chemical weapons attacks are those whose government wishes to make an example of them.” I would dare suggesting that the scope of usual suspects to be extended in this case as to read that those at greatest risk of chemical (and any other brutal) attacks are those whom the domestic and external players alike wish to make an example in their game. And that means each one of us.