By Mate Kapović
The official reason for the imminent Western attack on Syria is the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and the civilian casualties as its result. The controversial and still not completely clear question of who and why used the chemical weapons aside, it is clear that the official reason is obviously a false pretext.
Civilians have been dying in Syria since the conflict began in 2011. There is nothing new to that. Likewise, civilian victims in, for instance, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, not to mention U.S. drone attacks etc., do not appear to bother the Western political elites too much. As for chemical weapons (the international ban of which has been discussed and dealt with in numerous international treaties since the 19th century), the Americans themselves used it in the 1970s in Vietnam and in the 1980s former U.S. ally Saddam Hussein used it in the war against Iran.
If the West attacks Syria, the attack will be carried once again without a UN mandate, which means contrary to international law, as openly acknowledged, for example, by David Kaye in Foreign Affairs, hardly a radical journal. Still, even if the U.S., France and other allies should obtain permission from the UN Security Council to attack (which will not happen because Russia and China will not allow it), which would then make it legal under international law, the justification for the intervention would still be only of formal nature.
The UN Security Council is not a democratic body because all its decisions are made by the five most powerful countries in the world that won the Second World War (USA, UK, France, Russia and China). The ‘democratic legitimacy’ of the Security Council is nothing more than a question of whether these world powers, largely governed by their own pragmatic interests, can agree or not concerning a certain problem.
As much as the media, politicians and various experts tend to talk about international law ad nauseam, in practice the only international law that exists is basically raw power. Existing international laws, which can be better or worse (and which can sometimes be used tactically), are respected when it suits the great powers. When they’re an obstacle, they’re just words on paper.
If the use of chemical weapons and civilian casualties, both to be condemned, are not the real reason for the attack on Assad’s regime, then what is? The main motive is certainly the significant progress made by Assad’s military forces in recent times, after three years of war. One should remember that back in 2012, when the situation on the ground was less clear (for a time it even looked as if Bashar al-Assad’s days might have been numbered), the West decided to officially recognize the Syrian rebels as the legitimate representatives of Syria.
‘Syrian rebels’ are often referred to as if they were a single group, but a unified Syrian opposition doesn’t really exist. The opposition consists of a number of different groups (there are some claims that there’re as much as 1200 different formations of various sizes ‒ from small bands to heavily armed armies) with often completely opposed ideologies ‒ from democratic secularists and various Islamist factions (including, for instance, a group called Jabhat an-Nusra, in alliance with Al Qaeda) to Kurdish forces etc. These different rebel factions fight not just with Assad’s forces but among each other as well.
Since the West has already recognized the legitimacy of the Syrian rebels, a final victory of the old regime, which proved a tough nut to crack, wouldn’t be in the economic and political interest of Western countries. Of course, prior to 2011 none of the Western countries had any problems working with Assad’s regime or with the him being a dictator (inheriting power from his father), the same way that they still have no problem with the dictatorship of the Saudi dynasty or with any other non-democratic Western ally.
Of course, the background of all of this is the enormous geopolitical importance of the Middle East as a region (principally due to its oil reserves). More specifically speaking, the importance of Syria, leaving aside its own economic resources, is in its alliances. First of all, Syria is an important ally of Iran (which is in turn a great enemy of the U.S. and Israel). Thus, an attack on Assad’s regime is consequently an attack on the Iranian regime.
Syria also has very close political, economic and military ties with Russia. Among other things, Russia is heavily involved in extracting oil in Syria and exports a lot of weapons to the Syrian government, together with the fact that the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean is in Tartus in Syria. In 2009, Russian investments in Syria amounted to nearly 20 billion dollars. This clearly explains why Russia is so eager to defend Syria (and its own investments) from the attacks of the West, although Russians won’t be able to do much if the United States attack Syria without the permission of the Security Council.
The current Syrian regime is also allied with Hezbollah (a Lebanese Islamist paramilitary organization), known for its fierce anti-Israel stance (Israel, of course, being the main ally of the U.S. in the Middle East). In accordance with the said alliance, Hezbollah has provided direct military help to Assad’s forces in his recent offensives.
Thus, the main goal of the attack on Syria is weakening Assad’s regime (which indirectly means weakening the position of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah) and thus ensuring a better position for Western interests in Syria. In addition to broad geopolitical issues, there are, of course, purely economic post-war interests of Western corporations at stake here as well ‒ if Assad wins, countries betting on the rebels would be left with nothing.
Since the alliance of the West with the fragmented and highly heterogeneous opposition is very fragile and since Assad is not likely to go down easily, the results of Western intervention are quite uncertain. It is very likely that its only result will be a prolongation of the civil war ‒ a war that could continue for years to come (one should keep in mind the civil war in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990).
The best option for the civilian population would be an immediate ceasefire and some sort of a broad political compromise that would put an end to further destruction and killing. However, this is momentarily quite an unlikely scenario, since such a resolution doesn’t seem to be in the interest of any of the sides, both within and outside of Syria.
- Mate Kapović is a Croatian linguist and philologist and notably a staff member of the Faculty of Philosophy, Zagreb.