For some weeks it appeared that a war in, and about, Syria was likely. The US president was having to live up to his red lines in Syria even though no one seriously believed that an America pulling out of Afghanistan was going to put its boots on the ground in Syria. Then came the move from arch rival Putin that gave the US a way out of having to implement the threat. Ultimately, one was left with the rather quaint declaration from US secretary of state John Kerry about the possibility of an ‘unbelievably small’ attack. Now the UN Security Council has voted unanimously on a resolution to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and accord greater access to inspectors.
The US is the sole acknowledged superpower in the world with the largest economy; it has the biggest defence budget with 700 military bases across the globe and the only country that divides the rest of the world into military commands. Yet, every now and then, it feels insecure about its status. Consequently, there seems to be a repetitive desire to pick on a weaker non-nuclear country, slap it around, create a mess and then retreat to its own fortress. Once safely home, it puts on its earphones, listens to every phone call in the world, reads every mail, anything else on the Internet, manufactures new miniaturised and lethal weapons and glowers at the rest of us. US exceptionalism and unilateralism still rule even though the limitations of military power are increasingly evident.
The failure to get a consensus at the G20 meet on the US position and a lukewarm response at home, made Obama rethink. In all this din, it is often forgotten that the Syrian government had first complained in March 2013 that some insurgents had used chemical weapons in Aleppo and sought UN investigation. This was postponed on some pretext or the other. UN inspectors arrived on August 17 and sarin was used on August 21. Whatever else Bashar al-Assad might be, he was certainly not going to use the gas when UN inspectors were in Damascus. The US insistence that the only verification required was whether or not gas was used and not who used the gas makes the ploy all the more suspect.
The truth about Syria is now blurred and depends on what a person has read last. The situation is going to remain messy with so many crossed wires and short circuits that could blow up the entire region even though a truce of sorts operates. The interests are so deeply conflicted that it takes a while understanding where each of the players is positioned. The US disapproves of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad, and al Qaeda but supports Israel, Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The Syrian rebels are supported by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Turkey and al Qaeda, apart from the US and Israel. Al Qaeda hates the US, Israel, Assad, the Saudis and the Gulf states. Iran hates the Syrian rebels, Israel, Saudis, the US and the Emirates but supports Hamas, Lebanese Shias and Assad. Israel dislikes Assad, Hamas, al Qaeda and Iran but supports Syrian rebels. Qatar dislikes General al Sisi of Egypt, Assad and supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian rebels. Turkey also dislikes Sisi and Assad and supports both the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian rebels. The Russians dislike the Syrian rebels, support Assad and Iran. Additionally, the US, it seems is confused about who to support in Egypt — General al Sisi or the Brotherhood. Sisi along with the Saudis and the Emirates dislike the Brotherhood.
China supports Iran and Syria but would not be willing to annoy the Saudis or the Emirates unlike the Russians who seem to be playing for higher stakes and higher energy prices with a more aggressive role in the region. The threat of retaliation by al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra against any strike, limited or otherwise was very real with the possibility that Iran might intervene. A regional conflict out of control would have sent oil and gas prices through the roof and the battered Indian economy further.
Sarin gas was not the main issue in the conflict. These weapons had been used in the past by America’s ally, Iraq against Iran. Syria’s crime has been that it has remained close to Iran. Syria is also about isolating Iran and is one of those countries left where the West can still practise its principles of protecting human rights through a show of force. North Korea, Pakistan and Iran are no go areas for such adventurism because the first two possess nuclear weapons and the last is just too difficult to handle directly.
Conventional wisdom is that when a deadline is postponed, the threat is off. There will now be the usual spin to this and once again the US and its friends will declare victory and walk away, especially after the agreement. President Putin’s homily in the New York Times cautioned against a strike in Syria fearing that this would spread beyond Syria where the battle is not for democracy but between a government and an opposition that is mostly religious and extremist. Just about now, we also hear that the CIA has begun supply of weapons for Syrian rebels.
The West has no designated heir apparent to replace Bashar al-Assad in case efforts to remove him succeed. The main contenders could be the rebels and al Qaeda affiliates and that cannot be a comforting thought. This could lead to an enlarged conflict with Syria, Iraq and Iran conceivably on one side against Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE on the other. Whatever the immediate outcome of the Syria crisis, normally Iran would have been more determined than ever to speed its uranium enrichment, seeing how Syria has been subjected to US bullying. However, it now appears that there are some early signs of a thaw between the US and Iran after several positive signals from President Rouhani.
For the moment it may be quiet but uncertainties remain and Israeli perceptions will be an important factor.
Vikram Sood is former secretary, Research & Analysis Wing
The views expressed by the author are personal