A recurring pattern throughout the Syrian crisis is the coincidence of massacres suspiciously at times when there is a shift in the political backdrop. This is important to bear in mind when assessing reports this week of an alleged chemical weapon massacre near Damascus where some reports put the death toll at over 1,100. The Syrian government has vehemently denied responsibility for the incident and has even questioned whether such weapons were actually used.
Previously, when the United Nations Security Council was convening to vote on tougher international sanctions against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, a massacre or bombing atrocity would occur, as in the notorious case of Houla village in May 2012 when more than 100 civilians were slaughtered.
Typically, the Assad government would be roundly condemned in the Western media and its foreign allies, Russia, China and Iran castigated for supporting a “despotic regime”. In subsequent weeks, however, the Houla massacre was, as with many other such mass killings, shown to be the action of Western-backed mercenaries. The follow-up findings on Syrian massacres is scarcely given Western media coverage. The initial blaze of pejorative headlines and outright disinformation leaves an intended residual impression of blame against the Assad government.
The alleged attack this week with chemical weapons in three Damascus suburbs follows the same pattern. Washington has led the Western condemning the Syrian government without providing any supporting evidence. But the more telling question is: what is the significant political backdrop this time?
For nearly two and half years, Syria has been targeted by a covert war of aggression aimed at destabilizing the country and instigating regime change.
The Western axis sponsoring the covert war in Syria seemed for a time to have the upper hand and the possibility of regime change within its grasp, just as it had achieved in Libya with the murderous ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011.
But in Syria the strategic balance of war has, for various reasons, shifted in favor of the Assad government, whose hold on power now seems more assured as the country’s forces make increasing military advances this month routing the Western-backed mercenaries.
Indeed, it could be said that the Western agenda for regime change in Syria is facing eventual defeat, at least on military terms. The turning point was the military victory in the key mid-regional town of Qusayr during the first week of June. Ever since then, the foreign-backed militants have been decisively on the run, gravitating to their remaining strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo and in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour.
This new dynamic has led to tensions within the axis supporting that agenda. That axis comprises the main Western powers, the US, Britain and France, along with regional allies of Israel, Turkey and the Persian Gulf Arab monarchies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The new tensions appear to be coming to the fore between the US and Saudi Arabia. The two countries have had a geo-strategic alliance since 1945, when then King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud vowed to give the US priority over its newfound oil wealth. Tensions between the US and its Saudi client are a new, rare development. But they can be seen not only over Syria but also with regard to recent events in Egypt.
With regard to Syria, on the one hand there seems to have emerged the more realist camp, led by Washington, which accepts that the military option is spent and that if regime change in Damascus is to be effected then a more sophisticated political tactic must now be tried, perhaps beginning with the so-called Geneva II negotiations.
On the other hand there is the stalwart militarist camp, which wants to keep pursuing the option of regime change in Syria through violence. In this latter camp is Saudi Arabia; and pretty much no one else except for the diehard mercenaries remaining in Syria that the kingdom is supporting. Recall that Qatar was recently sidelined from its lead role of gun running in Syria by petty Saudi rivalry. The chances are that the miffed Qataris will delight in a bit of schadenfreude and let the Saudis twist on their own petard.
It is notable too that the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar had also played a prominent, if covert, role in coordinating weapons supply to militants in Syria, was recently reported as backing away the military agenda for regime change in its southern neighbour. It was also reported that Ankara was trying to distance itself from the extremist Jabhat al Nusra, the main mercenary brigade, which has been responsible for deadly car bombs and other blowback problems inside Turkish territory as a spillover from its terror campaign in Syria.
The outbreak of tensions in the Western-led axis between the US and Saudi Arabia could explain the reported use of chemical weapons near Damascus this week in which it is claimed that between 500 and 1,500 have been killed from exposure to the deadly nerve agent Sarin. The Western mainstream media are of course accentuating allegations that the chemical attack was carried out by Syrian forces loyal to President Assad.
More likely is that the attack – if proven to have occurred – was carried out by the foreign-backed militants trying to overthrow the Assad government. Previous incidents involving the use of chemical weapons, such as the attack on Khan al Assal near Aleppo on 19 March this year, in which more than 25 people were killed, were subsequently found to have been the work of anti-government mercenaries. An official Russian report last month on that attack at Khan al Assal confirmed the allegation against the militants.
In the latest alleged chemical weapons attack, it is perhaps significant that the first reports emerged in the Saudi state-backed news media on Wednesday. The claims of Syrian government culpability then spread rapidly in the Western media. On the same day, the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal demanded an emergency UN Security Council meeting with what looked like a preordained condemnation of the Damascus government without evidence. There also appeared to be close media coordination between the Saudis and the Saudi-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, which initiated this week’s claims of chemical weapons.
Paradoxically, as the Western governments have belatedly shied away from their previous material backing for the militants in Syria, there seems to have been an escalation in massacres and other heinous crimes. Car bombings in or near Damascus killed dozens of civilians last month; kidnappings and cold-blooded executions of captives in north-western Latakia province; village massacres, such as in Al Ain, in north-eastern Deir al Zour, and again at Khan al Assal near Aleppo; and, tellingly, internecine killings between rival militant groups. This surge in terror has been perpetrated mainly by the Al Qaeda-linked militia, such as Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams. These extremist Wahhabi groups are closely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, with some 60 per cent of Saudi weapons going to these outfits; they also have had long links with the kingdom’s military intelligence.
It is plausible that the increased terrorist bloodletting, including the latest purported use of chemical weapons, is a sign of desperation that these groups and their Saudi sponsor feel they are being abandoned in the Syrian field of operations by the erstwhile gung-ho Western powers.
That suggests the isolation of Saudi Arabia within the Western-led axis. Given the deep inherent psychological insecurity of the Saudi rulers, owing to their own precarious hold on power, the recent isolation over Syria seems to be feeding into Saudi paranoia over Western geopolitical intentions.
The change in Western position towards Syria was tacitly admitted last month by US secretary of state John Kerry when he met with members of the so-called Syrian National Coalition in New York. The Saudi-backed SNC delegation was not afforded the importance of a meeting in Washington and Kerry pointedly told his guests that “there was no military solution” in Syria. What’s more, Kerry urged the SNC delegation to engage in political negotiations with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
It was scarcely noticed in the Western media, but that signaled a seminal change in US tactics. No longer was Washington calling for Assad to stand down unconditionally, as it and its Western allies had demanded previously ad nauseam. Washington policy was now to give politics a chance, no doubt still with the long-term view of unseating Assad, but by an alternative method, since the military option had proven to be a futile gambit.
Notable too has been the more muted stance of London and Paris towards Syria in recent weeks. Recall how these two former colonial powers were in past months frequently vociferous in calling for Syria’s Assad to quit. Those vehement calls now seem to have been quietly shelved, in line with Washington’s more diffident approach to the “Syrian problem”.
This apparent backing away from the militarist option for regime change in Syria is reflected in the prolonged delay in promised Western weaponry to the militants. While the US, Britain and France gave the green light to sending weapons overtly to Syria back in early June the much-vaunted promises have not yet materialized.
The reticence in delivering more weapons by the Western states reflects their implicit recognition that the military option for regime change has been thwarted. With the Syrian national army gaining momentum, the Western powers realize that sending more weapons at this stage is tantamount to flogging a deadbeat horse. After more than 100,000 deaths, millions of refugees, and the Damascus government still retaining popular support, the Western sponsors of regime change have concluded somewhat cynically that their covert military ambitions have become redundant.
The tactical shift in the Western agenda towards Syria – from militarism towards politics – has, according to various reports, served to roil resentment among the militants in Syria towards the US in particular and also among the Saudi backers of the militants to their erstwhile Washington ally.
When Kerry told the SNC delegation in New York last month that there was no military solution and that it needed to engage politically with the government in Damascus, there was barely veiled animus towards Washington as a result. The delegation had come to the US in an attempt to drum up more weapons supply. After the meeting with Kerry, the newly appointed head of the SNC Ahmad al Jarba, who is close to Saudi intelligence, said: “To deny us the right to self-defense is to risk that the regime will survive. Thousands will be executed, the repression will continue without end.”
It wasn’t just the SNC exiles who were upset by Washington’s new political position. Saudi officials were also pressing the US on why it was not delivering on the promised arms. It was reported that the Saudis felt they were not given a convincing reason for why the US was getting cold feet.
Adding to the Saudi chagrin was the fact that it had recently taken over from Qatar as the main regional player running the regime-change mercenaries. Now it seemed Washington was undermining the Saudi de facto command by holding off on more arms. Of course, Saudi Arabia can source its own weapons without US or other Western support. The oil kingdom has years of superabundant supplies of armaments from the US and Britain, and it was reported earlier this month too that it has purchased $50 million-worth of weapons from Israel to supply to the militants in Syria.
Nevertheless, the more leery attitude coming from Washington towards Syria has no doubt rankled Riyadh. The latter, it appears, is being left to plod on its own in the Syrian quagmire.
Reflecting this ennui, Saudi King Abdullah this week iterated an extraordinary verbal attack on Washington over recent events in Egypt. King Abdullah did not mention the US by name, in keeping with diplomatic protocol, but it was obvious that he was excoriating Washington over perceived “ignorant meddling” in Egyptian politics. In the Saudi king’s view, the US was partly to blame for the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the destabilization of Egypt – even though Washington has endorsed the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi.
The Saudi outburst against its American patron is indicative of rumbling tensions that have arisen over Syria. Those tensions might also explain “the why” for this week’s alleged atrocity with chemical weapons. Feeling jilted, the Saudi players in Syria could be flexing their muscles, upping the ante in order to force Washington and the other Western states to get back into militarist mode. Remember, President Obama previously warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line triggering Western military intervention in Syria. It would seem that someone has conveniently, and impudently, splashed a bright red line for Obama to take heed.