Or, to whose benefit?, goes the Latin saying. A pertinent question, which appears to have been brushed over in the “case for war” in Syria that we have been presented with recently. This could be due to the fact that it produces several awkward inconsistencies which certainly weaken the case for military action and could possibly lead to damaging revelations for powerful actors involved in the Syria crisis.
What is most striking about the fallout from the chemical weapons attack last week in Syria, is that many of us found ourselves in at least partial agreement with Putin when he pointed out that it would be stupid of Assad to use chemical weapons at this point in the conflict in which his forces have managed to wrestle back some kind of initiative. Yet, the evidence presented by German intelligence seems to suggest just this; desperation on the part of the Assad regime. Furthermore, in his supposed desperation Assad apparently did the one thing Obama said would draw the US into the war, while UN chemical weapons inspectors were based in Damascus. All a little to convenient?
To many of us, the idea that the Syrian rebels would gas their own people just to draw the US into the conflict seems just too cynical to stomach. However, here we stumble on a common fallacy in the analysis of this conflict; that it is the rebels versus the government, when the reality is a far more complex web of interests and actors. Take the Gulf states for example. Qatar alone has ploughed more than $3 billion into Syria only to achieve a bloody stalemate, rather than their intended goal of a new islamist leaning regime (as has been the result in many other qatari sponsored uprisings of the Arab Spring); a situation that could possibly provoke reckless, opportunistic and desperate measures?
As well as a motive, the Gulf states could also have had the capacity. US cables leaked to Wikileaks evidence Gulf state cash to be behind Sunni extremist groups, many defined as terrorists, from Mali to Pakistan; according to Hilary Clinton, ”Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,”. Furthermore, ”overall level of [Qatari] counter terrorism co-operation with the US is considered the worst in the region”. With the funds and contact with thousands of foreign Jihadists in Syria, in such a chaotic context it is not unimaginable that one of these groups got their hands of Assad´s chemical weapons stock and used them against the civilian population. The Gulf states certainly need to topple Assad in order to put pressure on Iran (the main threat to their power in the region) and foreign Islamists trained in Afghanistan and Iraq would certainly not shy away from fighting the Americans in Syria, in fact it could be very good for their Jihadist cause.
Finally, it can´t be denied that gulf sates have a long history of funding Sunni extremist groups for this very purpose and the US turning a blind eye. In an interview with Seamor Hearsh of the New Yorker Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, tells us “It seems there has been a debate inside the [US] government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals … The Saudis and some in the [US] Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.” Although at this stage it would be rash to begin pointing fingers, this posts hopes to show that it is far from “almost certain” that Assad is responsible.
Although Putin´s stance does upset many of our prejudices and we could certainly question his sincerity, the meat and bones of his proposals (international control of Syria´s chemical weapons stocks) seems far more sensible than the west´s “attack first, ask questions later” approach. Furthermore, it looks like the best way to open the door further negotiations which many are beginning to see as the only real solution to this conflict. This isn´t to say that we should let those responsible for war crimes in Syria (Be they the rebels, Assad, or even foreign actors) off the hook. They need to be brought to justice, yet without due process, what is this justice worth? When it comes to war, the stakes are massive yet we are always sold rapid action on the grounds of national security. Hats off to the British people and their parliamentary representatives for slamming on the breaks, giving us a chance to get to the bottom of the spider web of interests that is Syria. Shame on those who paint this as an inherent weakness of the West: democracy, a willingness to negotiate, respect for evidence and due process, this is what makes us strong and we musn´t forget that.