The Syrian Imbroglio

Issue: 4 / 2013By Lt General (Retd) P.C. Katoch

The support to Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime is from the Sunni Arab nations, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US. The irony of the situation is that the US which launched GWOT to fight Al-Qaeda is now using Al-Qaeda to support Syrian rebels in a bid to change the regime in Syria.

The world watches with bated breath the developments in Syria. At the moment it appears that the US which President Barack Obama describes as the “anchor of global security”, is reconciled to at least defer striking Syria. However, Obama’s constraints are more because of the serious lack of consensus for attacking Syria by world leaders at the G-20 meet; British Parliament voting not in favour of British participation against intervention; apprehensions of a resolution within the US not getting through particularly because of opposition by the Republicans and from even double digit Democrats in the Senate; and above all lack of UN Security Council (UNSC) approval for intervention/striking Syria. Yet, the US option to strike Syria remains alive as the US continues negotiations globally particularly with Russia, as well as mustering consensus within the US, besides, implementation time of the Russian proposal with respect to chemical weapons of Syria, appears unlikely to suit impatient US.

The Syrian Tangle

The war in Syria has both regional and strategic dimensions, latter primarily due to the US designs with complex cross linkages. The Syrian identity itself is an amalgamation of Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Druze and multiple Arab ethnicities. The support to Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime is from the Sunni Arab nations, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US. Pakistan Taliban has opened their office in Syria and is assisting the rebels. The irony of the situation is that the US which launched GWOT to fight Al-Qaeda is now using Al-Qaeda to support Syrian rebels in a bid to change the regime in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly accused John Kerry for being untruthful that Al-Qaeda was not present in Syria. In fact the US writers had referred to the US plans of bombing Syria as the US substituting for Al-Qaeda Air Force. Then are many reports in the US media that the US has been using Al-Qaeda to assist the rebels in Syria. Paul Joseph Watson in his article “Whether America Shares Its Values with Terrorists” wrote more than a year back that just as Al-Qaeda terrorists were used to oust Gaddafi, hundreds of Libyan rebels with Al-Qaeda willing members were being airlifted into Syria to aid opposition in carrying out attacks against government forces. So can the West really absolve itself completely of complicity in the over 1,00,000 civil casualties in Syria? The game is not only about the Shia-Sunni strife but multiple factions fighting and above all control of oil, and the next likely target of the US being Iran.

Chemical Weapons

On the vital question of who released sarin gas on the hapless Syrian public, John Kerry told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that establishing this is outside the UN mandate but the US had proof that the Syrian regime was responsible. However, President Putin has called the US charge against President Assad of Syria having used chemical weapons “utterly absurd”. More significant is a report by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) that Britain Defence, one of the largest private mercenary forces in the world, was the target of a “massive hack” of its computer files by an “unknown state sponsored entity” this past January. The FSB disclosed a number of critical e-mails between its top two executives, founder Philip Doughty and his Business Development Director David Goulding, disclosing that the Obama regime has approved a “false flag” attack in Syria using chemical weapons and that Britain has been approved to participate in the West’s war on Iran. One e-mail from Goulding reads, “Phil, We’ve got a new offer. It’s about Syria again. Qataris propose an attractive deal and swear that the idea is approved by Washington. We’ll have to deliver a chemical weapon (CW) to Homs (Syria), a Soviet origin g-shell from Libya similar to those that Assad should have. They want us to deploy our Ukrainian personnel that should speak Russian and make a video record. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea but the sums proposed are enormous.” There is much in the news about Syrian rebel al-Nusra being in possession of sarin gas and Russia seeking explanation from Turkey but who supplied the sarin may be difficult to establish without an international commission with all the prevailing subterfuge. Besides, apprehensions are natural after the US presented false evidence of nuclear weapons as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Obama has also mentioned that since Syria has admitted possession of chemical weapons, it should be punished but then western scholars are writing about the possibility of Israel too having chemical weapons. For that matter China, though signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention is known to be in possession of chemical weapons since many years, as does Pakistan. Further, the record of the US itself is nowhere clean, considering what they unleashed in Vietnam.

US Interests

While asserting the necessity to strike Syria, Obama stated that if action against Syria was not taken, Iran will follow suit, implying Iran would develop and use chemical weapons as well. The ultimate target obviously is Iran. Interestingly, General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had stated in March 2007 that while bombing of Afghanistan had commenced, I asked a General of Joint Staff, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He picked up a piece of paper from his desk and said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today”. And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and finishing off with Iran.” He added, “I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments.” And he said, “I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”

In the same context, Dr Subhash Kapila, in his article “US Strategic Blunders in South West Asia, South Asia Analysis Group (March 18, 2013), wrote, “Strategically, the US cannot expect to sustain a long-term and effective presence in South West Asia by a constant and vicious demonisation of Iran… Iran commands the Shia Crescent extending from Lebanon, through Syria and to the borders of Afghanistan…the current de-stabilisation of Syria through a US-Saudi Arabia contrived war is more targeted at Iran than Syria.” By targeting Syria and Iran, the US wants to not only limit Russian and Chinese influence in the region, but also aims at the Chinese Navy embedding on Iranian ports.

Syria has discovered substantial gas reserves in its Qara gas fields and Syria lies on the gas supply route to Europe. In addition, direct supply of gas by Iran through Syria, cuts out Qatari dreams to supply gas to Europe directly. The USA, a strategic partner of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and the largest beneficiary of their oil revenues, is willing to back its partners to knock out Syria and Iran from the energy equation. In doing so, the strategic benefit would be to block Russian and Chinese designs in this regard. The Syria-Iran-Iraq Gas Pipeline, dubbed as the ‘Islamic Pipeline,’ is a $10-billion project that would supply gas from the largest oil field in the world (Pars in Persian Gulf) to Lebanon and onwards to Europe by 2018. Qatar that is also a claimant to Pars plans to supply gas to Europe through an alternate pipeline via Turkey traversing Iraq that would bypass both Iran and Syria. In Turkey, this would be linked with the USbacked Nabucco pipeline, carrying gas supplies from the Central Asian Republics. Both projects are strategic in nature but in direct competition with each other and hence the serious clash of interests. The US with important Central Command (CENTC OM) bases in Qatar, back the Qatar-Turkey pipeline which is sans Russian influence.

Interestingly, according to a report, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia during his recent visit to Russia pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord. Concurrently, London’s The Telegraph News Service reported that Saudi Arabia has secretly offered Russia a sweeping deal to control the global oil market and safeguard Russia’s gas contracts, if Kremlin backs away from the Assad regime in Syria, an offer Putin turned down. In strategic terms, the Qatar-Turkey pipeline is exceedingly important for Europe and the USA as Europe can be freed from any Russian control of their gas supplies. At the same time this restricts Chinese penetration in Iran’s energy infrastructure.

Current Situation

John Kerry had argued the case before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that not striking Syria will undermine the US credibility, endanger Israel and that the US aim is not war but degrading the military potential of Syria. Later, Obama has stated that not punishing Syria for using chemical weapons would encourage Iran to follow suit. More recently, Putin wrote about Syria in the New York Times that there are “few champions of democracy” in the civil war in Syria, “but there are more than enough Qaida fighters and extremists of all types battling the government.” Russia has handed over plans of Syrian chemical weapons to be placed under international control in four stages commencing with Syria becoming a member of the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Putin has also warned the US against unilateral action against Syria without UN approval. UN approval appears doubtful because both Russia and China would veto such move; doubts about who released the sarin gas in Syria, collateral damage in case of attack(s), and that, any strike would certainly not end the strife in Syria and within the region.

What appears likely is that the US will play along the Russian plan for securing Syrian chemical weapons briefly but will want this done post-haste in an impossible time frame that would be near impossible to actually carry out because of multiple technical challenges amidst a raging civil war, besides disposal being expensive and requiring experts—all of which would need months if not years. This apart, if the strike is planned primarily for strategic reasons as discussed, then the US will find a way to strike Syria and tackle Iran next before the latter goes nuclear. Generating another Sarin gas leak/attack that would justify unilateral action too remains a possibility. On balance, while the immediate case to act against Syria is loudly made out as retribution for Assad’s purported use of chemical weapons against Syria’s hapless civilians and the ‘Free Syrian Army’, the strategic reasons are energy supplies, regime change and reducing Russia-China influence.


President Putin has said that the matter of bringing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control has long been a subject of discussion by experts and politicians but that Syria’s chemical arms handover will only work if the US and its allies renounce the use of force against Damascus. The US Senate scheduled to vote on whether to authorise limited military actions is currently on hold but that may not be for long if another ‘trigger’ can be manipulated.

Significantly, Stratfor’s “Analytical Guidance: The Syria Crisis” states, “In the wake of President Barack Obama’s change of tack from a strike on Syria, the threat of war has not dissolved…. There is no chance of an attack on chemical weapons stockpiles. Therefore, the attack, if any, will be on command and control and political targets…. Remember that all public statements now are meant to obscure real plans and intentions. They are intended to shape the environment.” This is in line with the new US foreign doctrine of subtle manipulation from backstage. Obviously such manipulation does not preclude precision strikes. Absence of ‘boots on ground’ is a misnomer as this is being achieved by proxies, Al-Qaeda included, and Special Forces as a consequence to lessons learnt from conflicts over the years including Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully, better sense will prevail but the US cruise missile strikes may still take place though majority support at home may be unattainable and with even France having second thoughts of supporting intervention. Such a strike will certainly have adverse economic consequences for India besides affecting the Indian diaspora in the region.