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Hichem Karoui: Game changer
April 29, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

President Obama said on April 26 that he would respond “prudently” and “deliberately” to evidence that Bashar has used chemical weapons. Everybody understands the caution in this case. The former US President has waged a destructive war in Iraq over fake evidence that Saddam owned WMD. The war turned out to be one of the most costly in human and material resources. Iraq has not yet recovered and, after ten years of the US invasion, the country is still on the verge of a civil war. President Obama, a Nobel Prize winner for peace, if you remember, did not intend to let the events drag him into another war in the Middle East. Before his recent visit to Israel, the relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu was extremely suffering, because of repeated clashes over a real disagreement about how to tackle the Iranian nuclear file and the Palestinian issue, although Israel and the USA are still unconditional allies.

In this context, it is interesting to see how the Israelis have reacted to the new stance of the American President. They considered the way Obama would handle the Syrian case as a test for how he would do eventually in the case of a bigger confrontation with Iran. But these Israeli pressures are understood as possibly a reaction anticipating the chaos that would follow a sudden collapse of the Syrian regime. As I have already noted in previous comment, a victory of the revolution that would allow some radical groups to take advantage on the field is much apprehended. In Israel, any religiously affiliated political group that would profit of the Syrian revolution is anathema. Israel wishes a US intervention, but at the same time, Israel fears it.

However, the Obama administration is not in a hurry, for it needs consultation with allies, and with members of the UN Security Council.

As one former adviser to the President explained to The New York Times, “In the case of chemical weapons, you have forensic evidence. Ground samples. Tissue samples. In the Iranian nuclear programme, unless they conduct a test, you are never likely to have that kind of certainty. It’s more art than science.”

Syria is not a signatory to the 1993 International Convention on this type of weapons, which notably provides for the destruction of stockpiles. According to Le Monde (April 26), Syria has made significant stockpiles of chemical weapons in an attempt to reduce the gap that has continued to widen with the Israeli army in terms of military capabilities, after the 1973 war.

Suitable for bombs, and heads of Scud missiles and artillery shells, the Syrian chemical weapons (mustard gas, sarin, VX agent) are described by Le Monde as the largest in the Middle East. On 9 December 2012, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, said that Syria had “1,000 tons” of lethal substances spread over “31 sites.” Some experts speculate on the possible presence of a quantity of “Kolokol-1”, an incapacitating agent used by Russian security forces during the hostage taking in the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow in October 2002. This arsenal was established in the 1970s with the initial support of Egypt and the Soviet Union. Russia and Iran have then provided assistance for maintaining the programme.

In a letter to Congressional leaders, on Thursday April 25, The White House said, the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of Bashar Al Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale. But the administration is still waiting for “more conclusive evidence” before taking action. News reports have said that Syrian forces used chemical weapons in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. The White House did not comment on the areas where the “physiological evidence” came from.

Curiously, the day before (i.e. Wednesday), Chuck Hagel, US Secretary of Defence, was “caught by surprise” according to Haaretz (April 25), when Israeli officials publicly revealed their assessment that Syria has used chemical weapons in its civil war. Hagel told reporters that his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Yaalon, did not alert him to the assessment when they met in Tel Aviv on Monday. The assessment was announced publicly on Tuesday by a senior official with Israel’s military intelligence office.

What can one deduce of this? Continual “disagreement” between Israeli and US officials? Hide and seek game behind the diplomatic scene? Competition between intelligence apparatuses? Or simply, cretinism?

It is sure that the US officials, President Obama included, have warned several times that using non-conventional weapons in Syria would prompt a forceful action by the USA and its allies. Obama used the terms: “game changer,” and “red line.”

But “game changer” or not, are we not talking about mass murder? Does it really matter whether Bashar uses warplanes, helicopters, and heavy artillery, or sarin gas, since the result is the same anyway?

They told him, “Don’t use chemicals in killing, because if you do, we will go after you.”

Was that not equal to giving Assad a choice between killing his people with conventional weapons or using chemicals? For in the first case, nobody would interfere, but in the second case, there would be consequences!

Mind you! Even in the second case, the US and its allies have not agreed on a course of action. Washington has already urged the United Nations to investigate the suspected use of chemical weapons. Until then, Bashar would continue to kill, unpunished, while still refusing to allow the UN inspectors into Syria.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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