The West is on the brink of committing suicide. For two years, it has been aiding what it imagined was a democratic rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in every way short of direct intervention, only to see it pass inexorably into the hands of extreme Islamists bent upon destroying the country’s secular way of life and replacing Assad with an Islamist theocracy. What is worse, the armed wing of the rebellion has passed, for the most part, into the hands of foreign jihadis recruited by al Qaeda and its many offshoots and associates from 38 countries and criminals let out of the jails of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the condition that they go to wage war in Syria.
In spite of this, the European Union has continued to press for additional aid, not excluding direct military intervention, through the establishment of Libya-style ‘no-fly zones’ to aid the rebels in ousting Assad. And in a supreme act of short-sightedness, the EU has recently been joined by Israel, which has shelled a Syrian artillery battery on the Golan Heights and bombed a convoy it claimed was carrying sophisticated missiles to the Hezbollah from Iran.
Only one western country is standing up to this pressure and, fortunately, it is the country that counts. Its president is Barack Obama. He has steadfastly turned a deaf ear to the urgings of his EU partners in NATO, notably Britain and France, to transfer so-called ‘heavy weapons’ — anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles — to the rebels. But he has come under fresh pressure since 22 March, when both rebel and government sources reported that chemical weapons had been used in Syria for the first time, and accused each other of having done so.
The excuse has been provided by one sentence in the White House’s reply to a query from two US senators on whether the Assad regime or associates has used chemical weapons. “Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” This sentence has been pulled out of a letter that is full of doubts, cautions and caveats, to use as a cattle-prod with which to goad Obama into taking the leap. A close look at the letter shows that it is hedged with a minefield of qualifications that, together, add up to what Obama admitted on 30 April — that the US lacks hard evidence on whether chemical weapons have been used and who has used them.
But even this most cautious finding of the intelligence community could only have been arrived at by a wilful omission or distortion of relevant evidence. Because, even a cursory examination of the claims made by opposition websites and in videos uploaded by the rebels themselves shows that the first alleged chemical weapons attack on 18 March, which took place at Khan al-Assal, a village on the outskirts of Aleppo, was carried out by the rebel forces.
When reports of a chemical weapons attack on a village north of Aleppo first emerged on 18 March, the Syrian government approached the UN secretary general to demand the appointment of a fact-finding team of experts. White House spokesperson Victoria Nuland immediately dismissed this as an attempt by the Assad regime to discredit the rebels. But within hours, she had to change her tune when a second small attack took place in a suburb of Damascus.
The US and the EU prevented the UN from sending a fact-finding team by demanding that its mandate be extended from just one village to the whole of Syria and should cover all suspected chemical attacks. Fearing that the West intended to use this as a means of getting ‘experts’ drawn from western intelligence agencies into all military facilities in Syria, as it had done with the UN team in Iraq, Assad pulled back. As a result, until 1 May, no UN team had entered Syria to verify the conflicting claims.
This did not prevent the US and the UK from sending samples of the soil in Khan al-Assal and, possibly, Damascus, which had been smuggled out to them by the rebels, to their own facilities, such as Porton Down in the UK, for testing. It is on their findings, or rather the lack of fully credible findings, that the White House letter is based.
But the US intelligence community did not need these findings to have a fair idea that the chemical weapons at Khan al-Assal, and therefore most probably those used in Damascus, had been unleashed by the rebels. Because, the crucial evidence for this was contained in a report by the US News and World Report, based upon the translation of a rebel video uploaded from Khan al-Assal. It said that Assad’s forces had launched a Scud missile with phosphatic chemical explosives aimed at the police academy at Khan al-Assal, which they had almost completely “liberated” from the government on 3 March. The missile had, however, fallen short and landed in an area occupied by Assad’s forces.
This claim, although far-fetched, would have been credible if the police academy had actually been in their hands on 18 March, but an opposition website, Yalla Souriya (Get Going Syria), posted a news report on 25 March that government snipers were active in the police academy grounds, and another video uploaded by the rebels from the grounds of the police academy on 29 March showed rebels in a cannon-mounted pick-up truck firing at the house of the commandant of the academy. Therefore, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion — also reached independently by others — that as the Syrian government has claimed, it was the rebels who dropped a makeshift chemical weapon on an area of Khan al-Assal, which was held by government forces. The same could as easily be true of the sarin gas that was reportedly used in the attack in Damascus and the third small attack that took place on 30 April.
As I write this, Obama is standing firm, but Britain, France and Israel are determined to break down his resistance. However, before they go any further, they should ask themselves one crucial question: “Who stands to gain the most from the use of chemical weapons in Syria today?” The answer is obvious, because as Steven Erlanger reported in The New York Times as far back as February, while Assad may not be winning the civil war, he is not losing it either.
Today, his air force is intact; his army, in spite of being more than 80 percent Sunni, is not deserting him, and even the most committed democrats in the civilian population are now supporting him because they have realised that while he is no democrat today, he and his army are defending a far more fundamental freedom than the right to vote. This is the freedom to worship as one pleases; to study wherever and whatever one pleases; to travel where one chooses; to meet whom one chooses; to wear the clothes one fancies; and to eat, drink and think whatever one wants to — in short, the secular way of life that all Syrians have to regard as their birthright.
In sum, Assad is not only not losing the civil war, but is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of his people. Therefore, he has nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from unleashing chemical weapons now.
On the other hand, the rebels have everything to gain from convincing the world that he has actually done so. Because, an aerial assault by the West on his air force and military bases, on the lines of what the US and the EU did to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, is their only hope of winning the civil war. Convincing the US that Assad is preparing to use chemical weapons could be their last throw of the dice.
Finally, if the rebels win, it is the West and, above all, Israel, which will be the greatest losers. Because the 6,000- 10,000 foreign jihadis who make up the main rebel fighting force will no longer be welcome and have nowhere to return to. Their easiest course will be to head for Jordan. Once Jordan falls, Israel will be completely surrounded by enemies far worse than the Hezbollah.