It doesn’t matter whether or not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. The US and its allies are likely to carry out an attack on Syria in the very near future; the reasons for this have nothing to do with the recent incident in Ghouta.
In response to the chemical attack in April of this year, two months later the United States declared that the al-Assad regime had crossed its “red line” and began to provide arms to the rebels. They provided enough assistance to complicate the regime’s campaigns in critical areas, but not nearly enough support to allow the rebels to march on Damascus.
According to The Washington Post, this policy was decided weeks before the reports of chemical weapons use had surfaced; in fact, CBS News reported that these efforts were already underway before the chemical attacks occurred—they were merely stepped-up in June. That is, the reports of chemical weapons use in Syria were used as a pretext to justify a deeply unpopular decision the Administration had already committed to.
There were a number of serious problems with the Obama Administration’s case against al-Assad. Having reviewed the evidence of the US and its allies, the UN declared it to be unconvincing and ordered their own investigation into the incident. Subsequently, their chief investigator would claim that the evidence strongly suggested that it was the rebels who carried out the attack.
This should not have been surprising—al-Qaeda has a history of resorting to these tactics, and the means, motive, and demonstrated intent to do so. The attacks were small-scale, using a chemical agent that the organization is known to possess. Moreover, the attack was carried out on an area which was actually under government control at the time, rather than a rebel-held area.
The evidence was so strong against the White House narrative that the only people to endorse their account were those previously committed to intervention (France, the UK, Israel, the monarchs). And even though many of the Administration’s claims regarding this incident have been proven problematic, at best—in an Orwellian fashion, the White House continues to put forward their narrative without any regard for the facts, and without tempering their claims at all in light of subsequent evidence.
The Administration’s response to the latest incident has been equally disturbing. After demanding a UN investigation, following al-Assad’s surprise decision to facilitate the inquiry (claiming he could prove the attack was carried out by the rebels)—the US and its allies expressed a total disinterest in whatever the investigation may find and indicated that they were not going to wait around for the results. They never intended to: it was their hope that al-Assad would play into their narrative by obstructing the investigation—this would allow the US to assert “he must have something to hide,” and more easily presume guilt in the absence of evidence. Astonishingly, they have decided to stick to this course despite al-Assad’s compliance.
The allied powers are already positioning their naval assets in anticipation of surgical strikes (despite the fact that the architect of this plan has since come out against it); the United States is preparing 20,000 soldiers for deployment into the Syrian theater although the Administration does not have Congressional approval to engage (rendering the White House’s actions legally questionable). The UK has drafted a UNSC resolution blaming al-Assad for the attack and sanctioning violence as a response, declaring their intention to strike even without a UN mandate (i.e. in violation of international law), regardless of the ongoing UN investigation, and in defiance of warnings by the UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (fortunately, the British Labour Party has interfered with this plan, at least temporarily).
What’s the rush? As they say, timing is everything.
The Obama Administration’s previous decision to arm the rebels came just after the fall of the pivotal city of al-Qusayr, as the Syrian Army was preparing for a major campaign to purge Aleppo of rebel forces. At the time, Saudi Arabia and France argued vehemently that some kind of immediate intervention was needed to interrupt these efforts, which were otherwise likely to be successful—and devastating for the rebellion. This new chemical weapons incident just happened to occur at a moment when the regime is on the verge of a general de facto victory over the insurgency while the world’s attention was focused primarily on the unfolding crisis in Egypt.
It is disquieting that these chemical weapons incidents happen to occur at times when the rebels are in their most desperate need of foreign intervention, which also happen to be the times when it would make the least sense for the regime to resort to these tactics. Apparently, this trend does not worry the Obama Administration, who claims there can be “no doubt” that al-Assad carried out the attack. And even though by its own account of the events, the Syrian Ministry of Information was outraged by strike, which the state did not authorize, the Administration has been labeling the incident as a provocation which demands “punishment.”
All of this suggests rather strongly that policy is informing the Administration’s evaluation of intelligence, rather than having the intelligence guide its policies. We saw the same trends in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, with the White House calling the intelligence on Hussein’s WMD’s a “slam dunk.”
Then, as now, the truth or falsity of these claims is irrelevant.
Even if no chemical weapons had been deployed in the Syrian theater by anyone, given the dynamics of the conflict, the Administration would be using some other means of justifying intervention. Much like R2P, the “War on Terror,” or spreading “democracy/ human rights,” WMD claims are used almost exclusively to justify interventions against “inconvenient” actors. Western powers are more than happy to cooperate with agents carrying out the very atrocities they are condemning when geopolitically expedient (consider for a moment that Saudi Arabia is one of the primary allies “bringing democracy” to Syria); when there is little to gain from an intervention, they are eager to turn a blind eye to astonishing human suffering. The ideologies are used to justify rather than determine policy.
The arguments derived from these tropes are typically heavily-reliant on sketchy and politicized intelligence, exaggerated claims, empty rhetoric, and at times, outright lies. Syria is a prime example of these trends: the popular discourse of the conflict is the virtual antithesis of what seems to be happening on the ground.
But even in those cases where the accusations are more-or-less true, one cannot lose sight of the fact these intercessors are not acting out of altruism, but are exploiting others’ tragedy and horror in the service of their own geopolitical ends. Often more lives are lost under R2P than stood to be lost without intervention, greater oppression follows Western “liberation,” greater atrocities unfold as a result of Western “punishment” for “crimes against humanity,” more extremists are created as a result of the “War on Terror.” But it is irrelevant whether or not the espoused “moral” end is achieved, as long as the geopolitical aim is successful.
As the Obama Administration has made abundantly clear, the impending Western strikes in Syria will not be aimed at deposing al-Assad. The goal is not to resolve, but to perpetuate the conflict. It is unacceptable to Western policymakers that al-Assad emerge victorious in the conflict, as he stands poised to do in the near-to-medium term. However, a rebel victory is not a plausible option at the moment either—even if the US agreed to a Libya-style intervention (insofar as “victory” is understood as liberal or West-compliant factions of the rebels being able to effectively seize, wield, and maintain power and legitimacy in the aftermath of al-Assad being deposed). So because the “right” people are not able to win, the goal is to prevent anyone from prevailing.
The strategy will allow Hezbollah, the Syrian Army, and al-Qaeda to tear one-another down, too consumed by the conflict with one-another to pose a meaningful threat to the West, its allies, or its interests. Simultaneously, the “allied” forces will attempt to build up the capacity of the “good guys” until they are capable of rendering a more acceptable military solution viable. Finally, laboring under the delusion that “equalizing force” will somehow bolster rather than prevent a negotiated settlement, they will also continue their inconsistent and half-hearted pursuit of a diplomatic resolution—even as they continue to undermine these efforts by insisting that the President step down as a precondition to talks. One way or another, the war will not be permitted to end unless and until the US achieves its goal.
Of course, this strategy is incalculably devastating to the people of Lebanon, Syria and the greater region—but that is of little concern. Just as geopolitical interests trump “intelligence,” they trump morality as well.
Musa al-Gharbi is a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC); he has a MA in philosophy from the University of Arizona. You can follow him on Twitter @Musa_alGharbi.