US strikes to change geopolitical balance of power

The US carried out an air strike on a Syrian airbase in what they claimed was retaliation for an alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 74 people including 11 children, on April 4th 2017.

The strike was carried out ahead of any independent investigation, giving rise to the suspicion that the chemical attack was a pretext for direct intervention against the Syrian government.

Before the strike President Donald Trump gave an emotional press conference where he reacted to the images of dead children; I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me – big impact.

But after the strike Trump revealed that those dead children came second place to America’s geopolitical interests. He informed the world that:

“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,”

The US’ action was designed to protect its geopolitical interests in the region and risks making the world a more unpredictable and unstable place.

Evidence and facts – What do we know?

Trump responds to chemical attackTrump responds to alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun

One rule when examining evidence is not to take evidence supplied by those with a material interest in the outcome at face value.

Sadly this is where many western journalists have come up short, announcing Assad guilty as charged and joining in beating the war drums. Their behaviour is in stark contrast to the news of the death of up to 300 civilians allegedly many of them children, in a suspected US airstrike in Mosul, where they posed as the model of ‘objectivity’.

At the time of writing very little is known apart from what is agreed by the parties directly involved in the incident, the Syrian regime and the rebels, principally Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front.

They agree that Syrian jets carried out a missile attack and that there was a chemical incident as a result. The use of the the phrase ‘chemical incident’ is appropriate as the delivery mechanism is in dispute. The UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs told the UN Security Council that:

“Reports have stated that the attack was carried out through an airstrike on a residential area [but] the means of delivery of the alleged attack cannot be definitively confirmed, at this stage,”

In other words there was not enough evidence to determine the who and the how.

But this did not deter the US and its allies, they declared Assad guilty. France’s representative insisted:

“…there was significant evidence that the event had not resulted from an air strike on a warehouse belonging to rebel groups, as some had claimed. The atrocities had demonstrated the Assad regime’s ‘destructive folly'”

Unfortunately France didn’t see fit to share this evidence with the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

Oddly, despite the Syrian regime and the rebels agreeing that the attack was missile strikes carried out by jets, the AFP news agency reported that the initial draft resolution from the western allies to the Security Council demanded information on helicopter squadrons:

“Damascus would be asked to provide the names of all commanders of helicopter squadrons to UN investigators and allow them to meet with generals and other high-ranking officials within five days of their request, the draft resolution said.”

Which indicates their initial assessment was that the incident was a barrel bomb attack. It would seem that the western allies were acting before they had bothered to get all the facts…

All this points to, whether Assad was responsible or not, the US and the west looking for a pretext for direct military confrontation with Syria. The question is why?

Why wade further into the quagmire of Syria?

This is complicated in the respect that this is more a question of a hierarchy of motives, domestic and geopolitical, rather than one of a particular objective.

Domestically Trump has faced huge obstacles in implementing his campaign promises. An article by the Atlantic brutally summed up Trump’s position:

“Today, Trump is desperate. He is flailing from failure to failure in domestic policy, with dismal approval ratings and no clear way to increase them-except by trying to exploit the American public’s historic tendency to rally around a president at war.”

The primary concern is geopolitical as it affects the US’ position as, in the words of ex-State Department adviser Robert Kagan, …a regional power in every strategic region.

Syria divided: Who controls whatSyria divided: Who controls what? Source Al Jazeera

There is a pattern in the US alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria which appears to indicate that the US is working to establish a presence in a divided Syria. On CBS’s Face the Nation US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said If we can achieve ceasefires in zones of stabilization in Syria, then I believe – we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process.

This is not straight forward though, there is vociferous opposition from Turkey, who regard the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (Yekineyen Parastina Gel; YPG) as terrorists. The US think tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes the myriad of conflicting interests in their report ‘Syrian Kurds as a U.S. Ally‘:

“…the Kurds themselves, Turkey, Arabs in the Kurdish-controlled area, the Syrian Arab opposition, the Iraqi Kurds, and Russia. All of these parties are engaged in complex interactions; none fully share U.S. interests—although many have interests that overlap with or differ from those of the United States.”

There is evidence of a split within Trump’s team over the fate of Assad with Tillerson and the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley taking different stances. This division is a reflection of a wider split within the American ruling elite over how to deal with Russia and other challenges.

Tillerson in the CBS interview above, while questioning Assad’s legitimacy as leader, agreed that the fate of Assad was in the hands of Syrian people. He also warned of the dangers of regime change; we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed….

In contrast, the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in an interview with CNN was clear that; There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.

The ambition to overthrow Assad is a much more fraught aim in that it risks direct confrontation with Russia, and even if successful the likely outcome would be a vacuum that would be filled by IS and a multitude of other jihadist groups.

The US strategy, for now, looks to be one of establishing a presence in Syria while simultaneously removing the influence of Russia and Iran by ousting Assad.

When all this is considered, what makes it worth the risks of wading into the quagmire that is Syria?

Strategic importance of the east Mediterranean

Mediterranean SeaMediterranean Sea: The east Mediterranean is the meeting point for three continents

The east Mediterranean area (known as the Levant), of which Syria is part, links three continents and is a gateway for Asian, African and European trade routes which makes the region one of the most strategically important on the planet.

Understanding the geopolitical importance of the region is perhaps best explained through an analysis of Israel by Stratfor, a global intelligence company:

“Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere. A European power trying to dominate the Mediterranean or expand eastward, an eastern power trying to dominate the space between the Hindu Kush and the Mediterranean, a North African power moving toward the east, or a northern power moving south — all must converge on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and therefore on Israel. Of these, the European power and the eastern power must be the most concerned with Israel. For either, there is no choice but to secure it as an anchor.”

For any country with global influence, or global ambitions, the east Mediterranean area is crucial and they are compelled to fight for a stake in it, preferably at their rivals expense.

Making the world a more dangerous place

The US is facing the challenge of a shift from a unipolar world to a multi-polar one with the rise of China and Russia on the global stage and Turkey, Iran and Brazil as regional powers.

This has caused deep splits in the American ruling elites over a choice between maintaining American hegemony, by force if necessary, or recognising the spheres of influence of competing powers. The decision to launch air strikes against Syria shows that this infighting can produce sharp turns in policy.

The US air strike has ramifications beyond the middle east. The Dallas News observed, that the strike against Syria served as a not-so-subtle warning to U.S. rivals:

“President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria sent a powerful message around the world — one that could be read very differently in Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing.”

This sudden volte-face in US policy risking direct confrontation with its major rivals means that the world is now a more unpredictable, unstable and dangerous place.

Gary Hollands – April 11th 2017

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Syria – The Vultures Dance

Shock vote defeat derails campaign for Syrian intervention

With the loss of the UK parliamentary vote on August 29th 2013 a serious blow was dealt to the West’s[1] march to military intervention in Syria.

The débâcle of the vote far from showing the strength of British democracy highlights the complete dependency of the UK on US patronage. In this respect Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s official spokesman, was quite correct in stating that Britain is “just a small island … no one pays any attention to them”.

Ordinary people throughout the western world overwhelmingly opposed intervention, at best viewing it as another fruitless and ruinous Neo Conservative[2] adventure and at worst, a direct helping hand to al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Most of all, the shock defeat exposed and threw into sharp relief the disagreements and splits within the elites. It also revealed the trepidation with which they view the future for western influence.

A botched campaign

The US, UK and France dusted off the templates of Iraq and Libya and with the ingredients of both WMDs and humanitarian grounds they thought they had a ‘slam dunk‘ for war. However, it transpired that this new ‘Coalition of the Willing‘ had badly miscalculated the mood and made the complacent assumption that what worked yesterday would work today.

US President Barak Obama has been now forced into seeking congressional support for a strike on Syria. From a position a couple of weeks ago of being confident of launching missile attacks within days, the President is now in the humiliating position of having to compete with Assad in a charm offensive on American TV networks.[3]

The tide turns against the rebels

Around the debate on military intervention some asked why had the West not intervened before now? After all a British intelligence dossier claimed there had been 14 previous chemical attacks by the regime up to the August 21st attack. In response the US, UK and France point to the scale of the chemical attack and, though this position was not as clear cut as perceived, was seen as crossing Obama’s ill advised ‘Red Line‘ on chemical weapons.

In a coincidence of timing Chatham House, a think tank close to political circles, published a report ‘Syria: Prospects for Intervention‘ just before the alleged Ghouta attack. In it they listed options for increasing western involvement. “The most likely options for scaled-up intervention are the supply of more and heavier arms to the FSA and an intensification of covert action; punitive air strikes triggered by a major crisis such as a massacre in Aleppo; and an intensification of externally imposed sanctions.”

The fundamental difference between previous incidents and the latest one is that the tide of the civil war, helped by the entry of Hezbollah, has turned in favour of the regime. Up to now the West thought that the rebels would win by attrition, albeit bloody.

Incidentally, the entry of Hezbollah explains Israel’s ambivalence to events in Syria. They’re torn between between wanting the ‘stable devil’ they know Assad to remain in power. On the other hand is the prospect of the increasing power and influence of their bitter enemy Hezbollah if Assad were to prevail.

Until recently the west has shown no interest in promoting peace talks[4], as already mentioned above, they thought the rebels would win. They are now only contemplating talks now that they have painted themselves into a corner. Their refusal to talk to Iran, one of the most important players in the region, because of disputes over nuclear issues has verged on infantile and stupid.

John Kerry in a press conference made the cynical offer of calling off air strikes if Assad turns over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week”. He went on to comment that condition was unlikely to be met. What he didn’t admit was that logistically the condition was near impossible to fulfil. Note the phase ‘every single bit of his chemicals weapons ‘. What counts as ‘every bit’ and how will it be verified? This essentially allows the US wriggle room to argue the terms of agreement so they can maintain the veneer of legitimacy for intervention.[5]

With the latest turn of events the West has been left exposed, resorting to futile finger wagging at the Russians and Chinese accusing them of acting in self interest in opposing military strikes. It’s rather a statement of the obvious that the Chinese and Russians act in their own interests. China at the 2013 G20 summit went as far to caution against intervention as, in the words of Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao, “Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price – it will cause a hike in the oil price”. Never the less, the lecturing from US and UK is pure hypocrisy. Just a cursory glance at how stubbornly the US defends it’s ally Israel in the UN Security Council illustrates the point.

The evidence

From Obama, Kerry through Cameron to Hollande, all speak of incontrovertible evidence that Assad is responsible for the chemical attack.

In-spite of John Kerry’s declaration that Assad’s guilt is “a judgement that is already clear to the world“, all that is offered by Kerry are links to Youtube videos. While these show the strong probability that a chemical attack of some sort took place they give no clues as to responsibility, not with the certainty asserted by the west.

The US has since qualified it’s evidence. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough talked of a “common-sense test” rather than “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence”

How does this evidence stack up? It was illuminating listening to the doubts and challenges to this so called incontrovertible evidence during the UK parliamentary debate. At times it verged on outright scorn, questioning what on earth Assad would gain from such an attack, especially as he’s been gaining the upper hand.

Perhaps in the face of such scepticism, briefings from intelligence agencies have attempted to play up a ‘rogue commander’ narrative. As a further sign of splits within the administration, officials have been briefing against the interpretation of the evidence by Kerry.

The assertions of the US and UK that only the Syrian government is capable of launching chemical attacks is contradicted by evidence on the ground. There have been arrests in Turkey of al-Qaeda linked rebels attempting to manufacture sarin. In Iraq a plot to spray sarin gas by remote control toy planes was foiled. The UN’s Carla Del Ponte claimed that there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” as to the use of sarin by the rebels in Syria.

Ghouta chemical attack August 21st 2013

The United Nations today (September 16th 2013) released it’s report into the chemical attack on Ghouta. The report concludes that a sarin gas attack was carried out in the early hours of August 21st and delivered by surface to surface rockets equipped with original or improvised warheads. There are important caveats that should be noted. For example on page 18 under the heading of ‘Limitations’:

“The time necessary to conduct a detailed survey of both locations as well as take samples was very limited. The sites have been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team.”

Rocket part numbers
UN report Ghouta chemical attack: Ordnance identity codes

As it stands the evidence is not conclusive as to the guilty party but both sides will no doubt pick and choose whatever supports their particular agenda.[6]

West plays judge, jury and executioner

The US, UK and France have zigzagged from one rationale for intervention to the next. One it demands regime change. The next it cloaks itself in humanitarianism saying it’s not about regime change but a moral question. As soon as those excuses are rejected Obama declares that It is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations.

In an attempt to strong arm Congress members into support, the US Secretary of Defense Hagel, playing the Iran card, warned of the grave consequences. “A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments – including the president’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,”

Chemical hypocrisy

The US and its allies have expended much energy on their moral outrage at the use of chemical weapons. However just a cursory examination of the West’s record shows its moralising as a sham. In a policy of preventing Iran a victory against Iraq in the 1980s war, recent CIA documents show that the US colluded with Saddam Hussein to carry out chemical attacks on Iranian troops. In the words of the military attaché at the time, Air Force Col. Rick Francona, “The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,”. It’s worth noting that at the time many western companies were involved in the manufacture and supply of equipment for Iraq’s chemical weapons programme.

Then there is the US’s own record, it’s liberal use of Agent Orange and Napalm during the Vietnam war. It’s estimated that there were just under 5 million casualties from Agent Orange attacks.

Israel’s use of white phosphorous against civilian areas in Operation Cast Lead drew very little comment from its western supporters.

In the recent past there was the use of depleted uranium ordnance by the US in the battle for the Iraq city of Fallujah in 2003/2004. The result is that Fallujah experiences ‘higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki’. The American response to complaints about the use of these weapons was eloquently summed up by Colonel James Naughton of U.S. Army Material Command in a Pentagon briefing, “They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of the them.”

These are just a few examples of the hypocrisy exercised over the question of chemical weapons but they are enough to show that the condemnation by the US and its allies is not based on principle. All their hand wringing and moral outrage on chemical weapons attacks in Syria is little more than a flag of convenience and a useful foil for intervention.

Who profits?

What are the motives of those in the West calling for air strike? What do they believe the US and its allies can gain from intervening in what is generally acknowledged as an intractable mess?

The wish list seem to be variations of three or four themes:

  • With the fall of Assad Russia would be chased out of its only military base outside its border.
    Putin has already demonstrated that Russia will not give up its influence easily. More naval assets have been sent into the Mediterranean although its very unlikely Russia would challenge the West militarily. Russia’s offer to Egypt for joint-military exercises in place of the one cancelled by the United States is a warning they would enter into more direct competition with West in the region.
  • Assad’s fall would be a blow against Iran as it would lose its main ally in the region
    This is naive on two counts. Firstly, there is the lesson of the Iraq fiasco. Iraq was partly intended as a counter-weight to Iran, the US invasion and resulting mess effectively removed a key opponent for Iran in the region. Secondly, Iran’s influence isn’t based on sectarianism it also enjoys influence in Sunni organisations (to the chagrin of the Gulf states) such as Hamas and could easily cultivate new allegiances.
  • Military strikes against Syria would serve to reinforce the message to Iran that US will carry through veiled threats of action Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran is no doubt very well aware of the risks. To risk further inflaming the region just to deliver a message to Iran is a disproportionate gamble and quite frankly idiotic.
  • With care taken over training and supplying the right groups, victory would be more likely to go those more sympathetic to the West in general and the US in particular.
    Hmm, that worked so well in Libya! Just a casual look at the reality on the ground shows the difficulties. There are reports that there over 1000 groups fighting in Syria. Though there are distinct groupings, these groups are amorphous and alliances notoriously fickle with members moving between groups. Clashes between the groups are frequent and include executions of FSA members by Jihadi fighters. The West’s chosen proxy, the Syrian National Council is riven with divisions. There have been examples of FSA co-operating with al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. One such example was the capture of Kurds by rebels who were then handed over to al-Nusra. Even in downplaying their strength Kerry has had to acknowledge the strength of al-Qaeda affiliated groups admitting that, “Extremists amount to 15 to 25% of the opposition”. In this highly unstable environment, talk of a victory of secular forces sympathetic to the ideals of the West is a fantasy.

Added to this mix is a political imperative to demonstrate to its rivals that the West, in particular US, UK and France, are still the dominant powers. Unfortunately for the them, the events of the last decade and the crisis in Syria is making mockery of this.

For the Western elites Syria is an ugly baby contest. They could bring about the fall of Assad only to be confronted with a weak failed state or worse, a state dominated by Jihadist sympathisers. Stratfor, hardly sympathetic to the Syrian regime, brutally assessed that, “…regimes that are destroyed must be replaced, and one cannot assume that the regime that succeeds al Assad will be grateful to those who deposed him. One must only recall the Shia in Iraq who celebrated Saddam’s fall and then armed to fight the Americans.” On the other hand in not intervening, the West faces the danger of the consolidation of other challengers to their domination in the region, Iran and Russia.

9/11 wars – The legacy

History weighs quite heavily on the shoulders of ordinary people and with good reason. They have bitter memories of the lies that took them into two disastrous wars in the Middle East.

This explains the contortions that supporters of intervention are having to resort to in order to avoid comparisons between involvement in the Syrian civil war to Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that Syria is quite different to the Iraq war, there is no direct comparison, for instance chemical weapons have actually been used in Syria. Instead they are more keen to draw comparisons to the Kosovo intervention citing that both wars involve genocide.

Closer examination shows intervention in Kosovo not to have been such a charitable venture. For the West at the time strategic concerns were just as important, such as “the risks to NATO countries of a wider war and the unity of Europe,“. By the time the West had intervened, genocide had already been conducted against Bosnia Muslims, incidentally with Dutch UN troops standing aside to let the Serbs carry out massacres. One of the worse acts of ethnic cleansing was carried out by the Croatians against Serbs after they recaptured Krajina.

From looking at history through rose tinted glasses, others try to re-write it. An example is a Washington Post article, where the author, in making the case for intervention, claims that the no fly zones were a direct response to the poison gas attacks on Kurds, “Hussein used chemical agents again as part of his campaign against Iraq’s Kurds (earning Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid the nickname “Chemical Ali”). In response, the United States established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, but that was more a reaction to a humanitarian disaster than to Hussein’s choice of weaponry.”

In a twist of irony the same newspaper just two days before in a fact checker article stated, “In 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish resistance forces, but the relationship with Iraq at the time was deemed too important to rupture over the matter. The United States did not even impose sanctions.”. In fact the two events were three years apart and in the intervening period Iraq invaded Kuwait…[7]

Washington Post
Washington Post front page September 2nd 2013

Advocates of intervention have also asserted that if military action had been carried out earlier in the civil war the subsequent bloodshed could have been prevented. This is not supported by events, quite the contrary. The rebels have been unable to topple Assad even with arm supplies from their patrons and floods of foreign fighters. Alongside their internal bickering they have been shown to be too weak to have ever been able to form a stable government. The more likely outcome is that events would have been fast tracked through the overthrow of Assad, and gone straight to sectarian violence and the possible fracturing of Syria. This line of reasoning is nothing more than a thinly disguised justification for the Neocon doctrine of pre-emptive intervention.

Those arguing simply that something must be done, that a signal must be sent as a deterrent to other tyrants as well as Assad, disregard the consequences of their actions. Their position is implicitly dishonest because they realise that the outcome is more than likely to be made worse. These stances share a false illusion. That they can and do control events, that they can control the consequences of their actions. Their entire position relies on this assumption. Just raising this point is enough to highlight their folly.

For action to be effective it has to tip the balance.

The public, quite correctly, concludes that for military action to be an effective punishment it must carry the consequence of altering the balance of the civil war, to tilt the outcome towards regime change.

In the words of Jack Straw MP, anything else would be a ‘shot across the bow’. In the Parliamentary debate (29th August 2013 3.49 pm), he said it would be little better than firing “a Tomahawk missile that is targeted to fly over Damascus and land in the unoccupied deserts beyond”.

The public are being quite pragmatic, they understand the potential for catastrophic consequences and ask if the situation would be made worse by military action than if it wasn’t undertaken? Most have, according to polls, have concluded that the situation would indeed be made worse.

It should be noted that for many ordinary people that Syria does present an agonising dilemma. They have no illusions in the viciousness of the Assad regime. The massacre carried out by regime forces in the village of al-Bayda, where over 150 men women and children were murdered, leaves no doubt as to the nature of Assad’s regime.

The SNC and FSA are very clear about what they think the purpose of intervention is: to change the balance towards regime change. As an aside, the calls by the SNC and FSA for air strikes is a tacit admission that they are not able to defeat the Assad regime.

Stuart Ramsay in a Sky News report, 9th September 2013, on the Turkey/Syria border reported that FSA planners had informed him of plans to move, (when the US commences bombing), south towards Damascus and West towards Latakia. Ominously, they stated their intention to collaborate with the better armed and more determined Jihadi groups to utilise their experience of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The evidence on the ground is that the more unsavoury elements of the opposition would have as much to gain, even through they may protest otherwise, from American air strikes as the FSA.

What if the Syrian army is ‘degraded’ in areas of Alawites and Christians sufficiently to allow rebel forces to take over? The very real risk is that one massacre is answered with another…

The days of the western posse are over

The crisis in Syria is taking place against the back drop of the decline of the United States as the world’s sole super power. As Paddy Ashdown lamented in a BBC interview, “We’re not living in the days of the western posse…the west’s power’s diminished”. The US is no longer the brash, bellicose US of the Bush Neocon era. What the Bush adventures revealed was that the US no longer possessed the overwhelming economic power to shape the world in its own image and that military power could not bridge that decline. The West generally has been chastened by the experiences of the Afghan and Iraq disasters and has further suffered the catastrophe of the Great Recession of 2008.

The western elites are finding that the reliable methods of the past no longer work, they only seem to reinforce the law of the unintended consequences.

There are open discussions of the decline of US, the NeoCon Truman Project poses the question “America at a Crossroads – Able to Lead, or Gulliver in Lilliput?”. Needless to say their recipe is more of the same but that they felt the need to address the question is in itself instructive.


Whether brought about by accident or design, the Russian proposal for Syria to hand over control of its chemical weapon stockpile offers the US and its allies a face saving way out the impasse they made for themselves. This proposal is in no way a charitable act on the part of Russia or Iran. In the event of western military action there would be very little they could do to help or save their Syrian ally. They are as desperate as the West to pull back from the brink.

The US’s strategy is in tatters, all it has left is a wish list of demands. It reacts blindly to events it has no control over and blunders from one to the next.

While the FSA is unlikely to defeat the regime, conversely the regime is unlikely to defeat the rebel forces. At best they can fight each other to a stand-still, each ensconced in their respective territories. Some of the rebel groups are little better than criminal gangs. The risk with a stalemate is that leaders of these groups morph into warlords inflicting a brutal harsh discipline over their territories.

Additionally there are two nightmare scenarios for the West and Russia. The collapse of the Syrian regime into a failed state with its civil war spilling into the region or worse still, power falling into the hands of rebels obligated to al-Qaeda influenced elements.

This may well will prove a powerful motive force for an accommodation between the major powers, perhaps leading to fresh efforts to tempt or force the FSA into government. With the distance between the FSA and Assad and the West and Russia the likelihood of success appears remote.

The most likely outcome seems to be a protracted civil war with the very real risk of spill over into the surrounding region. If Syria falls, Lebanon goes down with it it. The break-up of Syria into autonomous or semi-autonomous areas is beginning to look more and more likely.

Far from representing a choice of lesser evils the major powers are instead facing a choice of disasters….

Gary Hollands – September 4th – 16th 2013.

Notes and references

1. The West. The principle allies of the United States, for example, the UK and other Anglo Saxon countries, France and NATO.

2. Neo Conservatives. The term is used to describe those on the right advocating free market laissez-faire economics and robust intervention abroad. In this context applies to those on the political right who believe that ‘modern threats facing the US can no longer be reliably contained and therefore must be prevented, sometimes through pre-emptive military action.’

3. Since this article was written Obama has postponed the Congress vote while a Russian proposal for chemical weapon disarmament is investigated. It was widely considered that he was at risk of losing the vote.

4. Talks have only just been reconvened (13th September), the first since June.

5. Within hours of these words being written Russia pounced on Kerry’s remarks to out-manoeuvre the US with their own proposals on the control of chemical weapons.

6. There are many who question what Assad could possibly have gained from a chemical attack, especially as he now has the upper hand against the rebels. Some have contended that he was seeing how far he could push the west. This would be such as risky strategy as to lack any credibility. Equally, the claims from conspiracy theorists that the event was a rebel black flag operation also stretches credulity. No evidence apart from single source interviews have been produced to back up those claims. Again, the risks of the consequences should it be discovered that rebels were involved makes it an unlikely scenario..

7. The Halabja chemical attack took place March 16th 1988 . The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait started 2nd August 1990. The no-fly zone was established after the first Gulf War.


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The Syria end game

The Syrian uprising could be entering its final bloody phase. Prompted by the recent successes of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), discussions have turned to the question of how long Assad can cling to power.

Many observers, including myself writing in the article Syria – Observations as the uprising unfolds, expected a weakened Assad to regain control within weeks or months. It’s a remarkable testament to the tenacity of those who have taken the fight to Assad’s regime.

The uprising started as spontaneous mass demonstrations but were isolated to each city, town and village and coupled with very little co-ordination or central organisation, the protests unfortunately failed to dislodge Assad.

The regime has been able to regroup and hit back. Now nineteen months on, the price stands at almost twenty thousand dead, many fleeing their homes and the beginnings of inter communal violence.

The reaction of the Assad regime has been predictable, brutal and extremely violent. Assad’s stooges have been unable to learn that their use of violence has turned into its opposite. Far from cowing the population as it did in the past, it now enrages them, gathering more recruits to fight with the FSA.

The slow bleed of defections

The regime is being weakened by the slow bleed of defections of those sickened by the indiscriminate violence meted out to unarmed civilians. Support from its social base is also showing signs of draining away, increasingly disillusioned by the price they’re paying for the regime’s struggle to cling to power.

The euphoria of the FSA’s recent successes should be tempered with the caveat that this is not the rotted regime of Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak where the basis of support had withered to a handful of regime cronies. Assad still enjoys significant social support from Alawites, Christians and the other minorities and will not be easy to topple.

From mass action to armed groups

We are witnessing the completion of the transition of mass popular action to civil war with a growing risk of sectarian violence. I pointed to this tendency of some uprisings to transform into military conflict in the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising, and examined some of the reasons:

“The institutions that people would usually turn to during mass protest have been ruthlessly suppressed in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. These same institutions, whether they be political parties or trades unions would also provide a pool of activists experienced in organising action. There was none of this available, nothing that could articulate the pro-democracy’s demands into the tactics and strategy necessary to carry the movement beyond its natural limits.”

One of the consequences of the civil war is the triggering of huge internal displacement. Anything up to one and a half million Syrians are internally displaced. An exodus from all the main cities has been reported since the attacks on Damascus and Aleppo. Watching a live video feed on the 23rd July from Aleppo, I was struck by the apparent absence of civilians. Other news reports tell of empty towns only populated by FSA fighters, another indication that the mass character of the uprising has passed to be replaced by armed groups loosely federated around the FSA and other groupings.

The armed opposition

The Free Syrian Army has become a catch all description for the armed opposition but not all groups are formally affiliated. For example, the groups following the Salafist jihadism doctrine operate more or less independently or under the guidance of foreign fighters and have their own resources. The FSA, are more dependant on Saudi Arabia and Qatar for funding and supplies and the weapons that defecting soldiers bring with them.

The fractured nature of the opposition means that in the event they achieve victory there is unlikely to be a significant period of coherent central control. With the prospect of the resulting instability combined with the nature of the FSA’s funders, it’s hardly surprising the Alawite and Christian communities have very little confidence in the FSA and their political allies the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Syria – The proxy battleground

Syria is of huge strategic importance in the region. In the words of a New York Times article, Syria is:

“…sitting at the center of ethnic, religious and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond.”

Map of Syria

The West and in particular the US sees the uprising as a chance to dislodge its Russian rival from the region and usher in a more pliant regime while at the same time further isolating Iran. This calculation is complicated by Turkey, which is now a regional power in its own right and is becoming more assertive in its regional ambitions and competing with both the US and Russia for influence.

UK epitomises cynicism of the west

The cynicism of the west is epitomised by the UK, on the one hand taking the moral high ground with its Foreign Ministry loudly proclaiming “Our positions is still the same. Al-Assad should go and be held responsible for his regime’s crimes,” but goes onto hedge its bets, “If the Syrian people reached a consensus on granting a pardon to the regime officials including President Assad, we are not going to object”. This statement also reveals the preference for a new government made up of the known quantity that are the current regime officials.

Recycling the old regime

The US foreign-policy think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addresses the difficulties of recycling the Assad regime :

“What will happen to senior state officials, government ministers, top-ranking civil servants, and Baath Party members? Is there any reason to expect that they will facilitate the transfer of power without prior political arrangements and assurances?”

The fact is that there is little possibility of a regime based on its old officials, there are too many with blood on their hands. Unlike in Libya those officials that have abandoned the regime haven’t defected, they’ve have simply melted away over the border. Ethnic tensions would also play a part, the highest positions in the state are reserved for the Alawites and Christians with the majority Sunni confined to the lower echelons. It’s doubtful whether the Sunni would continue to tolerate this imbalance.

Western concern over chemical weapons illustrates the dawning realisation of the potential fall out from the collapse of the Assad regime. Though concerns over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons may be justified, a degree of skepticism should be exercised as these can also serve as a useful foil for intervention as the west did in Iraq.

Russia and China

Russia has had to play a much more delicate game but is no less cynical in defending its interests than the west. It’s Foreign minister Lavrov plays the game of honest broker but Russia’s interests says otherwise. Their naval base at Tartus is their only base outside Russia and Russia enjoys a near monopoly of arms trade with the Syria regime which was worth at least $4 billion in 2011. With the exception of Iran, Russia has no major influence in the region and so will not abandon its friend Assad without a fight.

China has spreading influence on the economic front. Politically they don’t want to be seen turning on potential allies, dictator or not. A friend to dictators everywhere it claims its aim is to play a “positive and constructive part on the Syrian crisis. Their record in Africa where operating on the principle of not drawing “…lines according to ideological differences” shows that China’s influence is baleful rather than positive. China’s main goal in this instance will be to prevent further extension of the US sphere of influence.

The western military intervention in Libya that led to regime change has given Russia and China a cover of legitimacy in vetoing the Chapter seven UN resolution put forward by UK, US and France. No credence should be given to any of the arguments from the security council powers on these resolutions, it is merely the diplomatic side of their jockeying for influence.

What next for Syria?

Buoyed by the audacious attacks of the FSA, though tempered by subsequent setbacks, and the FSA’s apparent transformation into a co-ordinated viable fighting force, attention is focusing on what comes next. Discussions have turned to the aftermath of the Assad downfall, the problems of sectarian violence, regional instability, the influx al-Qaeda fighters and the prospect of chemical weapons falling into their hands.

An interesting point of note is that one of the consequences of the NATO intervention in Libya was the growth in the influence of al-Qaeda affiliated groups. This has led to these groups making gains which have resulted in the de-stabilising of north African countries such as Mali. It’s widely acknowledged that al-Qaeda will benefit from regime change in Syria as it did with Libya and Iraq. One can only conclude that the west considers this ‘collateral damage’ to be a price worth paying…

The spectre of sectarianism

France sowed the seeds of present day sectarianism, although this sectarianism is ultimately rooted in centuries of extreme repression, when Syria was a French Mandate between 1920 and 1946. Following a policy of divide and rule they encouraged the impoverished Alawites to positions of privilege, the French also engineered the autonomous state of Latakia for the Alawites that lasted for over a decade. A steady influx of Alawites into the armed forces, one of the few avenues that offered a decent income, eventually resulted in their over representation. This was to prove a vital springboard in the future.

The Alawite ascent was further cemented with the coup d’état that brought President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, to power in 1970. This has enabled the key levers of state to be consolidated into the hands of an Alawite elite.

Though the ingredients of sectarian violence were present, it was not necessarily inevitable. In the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising I explained that:

“In extraordinary times mass struggle can overcome and cut across the barriers of sectarianism. In all the Arab uprisings, the people have been at pains to emphasis their unity across race and religious lines.”

In first weeks of the uprising, the natural support base of Assad were noticeable by their absence from the streets, showing perhaps that the relationship is more a marriage of necessity.

There are many examples of the instinctive reflex on the part of activists to forge unity across the communities, many Alawites have joined demonstrations and agitated against the regime.

Unfortunately, the failure of the uprising to pull all communities behind it has opened the door for sectarians on both sides to exploit the deep roots of prejudice.

Syrian National Council – paying lip service to ethnic unity?

The Syrian National Council, recognised as the main external opposition group, has played a lukewarm role in the fight against sectarianism. Their failure to condemn the speeches of opposition figures such as Maamun Homsi who threatened to wipe Alawites “out from the land of Syria” shows a willingness to turn a blind eye to bigoted rhetoric. Presumably the reference to ‘others’ in the National Covenant for a New Syria also means the Alawites, they are not mentioned by name anywhere in this fine sounding document despite being around 12% of the population. This absence of an explicit mention can surely only confirm the suspicions of a fearful Alawite community who after all are regarded as heretics by sections of Sunni.

The SNC risks leaving itself open to the accusation that it pays lip service to ethnic unity to appease its western supporters. The opposition generally, riven by religious and ethnic splits, have shown themselves incapable of persuading the Alawites and Christians that they are a credible alternative to the Assad regime.

Not all of the minority Alawite and Christian communities enjoy the same economic privileges, many in their day to day lives have more in common within their Sunni brethren than with the privileged business and political classes. Poverty is as widespread among the Alawites, (for whom social mobility is usually only possible via the military or the Ba’ath party), as it is the Sunni. It was the failure to win over this section, the rural poor and the working classes of the cities, that has set the course to sectarian strife.

Balkanisation of Syria

There is discussion of Syria fracturing into sectarian enclaves. However, any attempt to establish enclaves is complicated by the inter mingling of communities. Even in the Alawite heartland of Latakia province the Sunnis make up 50% of the population.

At present there is very little support for the ‘Balkanisation’ of Syria but blood letting by the Salafists, who regard the Alawites as heretics, or the Alawite Shabbiha militia would of course raise the spectre of ethnic cleansing. We’ve witnessed the first signs of this with the Houla Massacre and attacks against the Christian minority.

It may seem most likely at this stage that Assad will fall, however, it can not be ruled out that Assad survives even if his area of control is reduced to an ethnically cleansed Alawite enclave.

Reaping the rewards…

US president Barak Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union Address, said “How this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain. But we have a huge stake in the outcome.” The main reward the US seems likely to reap is a strategically important country racked by inter communal violence. This violence will inevitably spill over Syria’s borders, into Lebanon, Jordan, the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. Israel will not escape the fall out either, already there have been incursions of Syrian troops into the Golan heights.

The civil war in Syria has entered a new and decisive phase but is still too chaotic to predict in spite of the confident predictions of Assad’s downfall from some quarters. There is very little the major powers can do to influence to outcome, other than supplying arms to their chosen protagonist.

The aim of the major powers from this point on can be simply summed up as a fight for the ‘spoils of war’.

Gary Hollands – July 30th 2012.


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When Gaddafi falls – what next?

With the aid of a five month bombing campaign by NATO it would seem that the rebels are within touching distance of their aim to topple Muammar Gaddafi[1]. They have taken the towns of Zawiyah and Gharyan which are within a couple of hours driving distance of Tripoli and are reported to have taken areas of the capital itself.

Very few will shed a tear if and when Gaddafi is toppled, quite the reverse, there will be wild celebrations and not just in Libya. I myself will raise a glass to Gaddafi’s downfall…

After the celebrations the question will be, what next?

The key to this question is in the nature and the make up of the rebel forces. They are in the main a disparate collection from across the political and religious spectrum held together by the common aim of toppling Gaddafi. There is already a sign of what may come with the comments of a rebel to Reuters. It is interesting that the same concerns are now being expressed about the rebels that I outlined in the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising. It’s worth noting that the Reuters article also uses the term ‘disparate’ in its description of the rebel forces.

It should be borne in mind that the rebels could not have won without the fire-power of NATO, their rebellion would have ended in Benghazi. Neither are all the rebel groups united under the Transitional National Council banner and those that are operate more or less autonomously. The death of Abdel Fattah Younes illustrates the difficulty facing the TNC in maintaining discipline among the rebel factions. All of this means that whatever replaces Gaddafi ‘s regime will most likely be weak and unstable.

The military victory for the rebel/NATO alliance is just the first stage of winning power in Libya. As with Afghanistan and Iraq there will be a breathing space, a ‘honeymoon period’[2], while the opposition is scattered, leaderless and demoralised. The outcome of this period depends on the new regime’s ability to deliver on the everyday necessities such as electricity, food, fuel and being able to provide security and jobs.

There is every chance that the rebels could split into their natural rivalries, whether religious, political or tribal. Gaddafi may have gone but the forces left behind may prove large and cohesive enough to coalesce into a significant opposition in a similar manner to the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Baathists in Iraq. Clearly, with this volatile mix, guaranteeing security will probably present the greatest challenge for post-Gaddafi Libya.

It would be a cruellest of ironies, having intervened in Libya to prevent the prospect of a failed rogue oil state on the borders of Europe, NATO through its rebel allies creates exactly that…

Gary Hollands – August 21st 2011.

*Update October 21st 2011: Yesterday, following a NATO air strike on his convoy as it was leaving Sirte, Gaddafi was captured and executed by rebels.

Notes and references

1. Caveats. As the situation is still very fluid, this article will be updated as new events are confirmed. The main conclusions however will remain.. For some further background please refer to previous articles, Libya – Observations as the uprising unfolded and Libya – Lessons of the Uprising. Apologies for the rough edges, spelling and grammatical errors, these are entirely due to my rushing this article.

2. This does seem to be a general feature with the overthrow of regimes that happen either wholly or partly with the direct military aid of external entities. This period can be as little as a few months as in the case of Iraq. I’ll expand on this subject at a later date.


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