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The chemical attack

Salman Haidar | New Delhi |

The Assad regime in Syria has long been accused of unconscionable severity and cruelty to its opposition. Mr. Assad rules over a divided and fractious country, and his efforts to restrain his opposition have led to severe measures against political dissidents in an ever-escalating cycle. As a result, Syria, a jewel of a country, has been in irremediable turmoil which has only been compounded by ill-judged foreign intervention. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the rising fundamentalist tide within the region, the regime has been able to retain its hold on power, and to maintain its secular character. The severity of the opposition challenge and the measures adopted by the regime have made it impossible for matters to settle down; the civil war rolls on with no end in sight, and with new groups entering the fray to add fuel to the flames.

The international community has been witness to these events, has deplored them as well it might, but has been unable to do much to bring a halt to the strife. The UN has tried but it has not been granted the necessary authority: ceasefire agreements have repeatedly fallen by the wayside, and the combatants have been able to pursue their aims without being held to account by supra-national pressures and demands. There has been nothing like the coordinated external intervention in Syria that had brought down the Saddam Hussein regime next door in Iraq. Mr. Assad's foes receive support from abroad but not to decisive effect. The result of the battle therefore remains undetermined and there is no present sign of crumbling on either side.

The crisis in Syria took on an unexpected dimension last year when refugees from the war set out for destinations in Europe in quest of peace and safety. This happened at a time when a flood of migrants was headed for Europe from their homes in North Africa and West Asia, driven by economic necessity, and many destitute refugees from Syria were able to join them, slipping across national borders in their journey. A good part of the Syrian population had already become refugees in their own land and in neighbouring countries like Lebanon, and now some of them were headed for the affluent lands of Europe. They were to receive an uncertain welcome as they advanced and this became one of the most pressing public concerns as European countries grappled with their consciences and with the prejudices of some of their citizens to give succour and asylum to the immigrants at their gates.

Meanwhile, the civil war has been prolonged and become more intense as a result of foreign intervention. Russia, a historic friend to Syria and a major power in the vicinity, has been drawn deeper into the struggle and has taken a direct part in it as a principal backer of Mr. Assad, keeping company as it happens with Iran, the inveterate foe of the aggressive anti-Assad militias of the Islamic State (IS). The parameters of this struggle have more than local, or even regional, significance, for ideological factors have become ever more obtrusive in a manner that prefigures the desire of the most implacable elements to bring about global jihad.

The civil war has been marked by a number of atrocities, the most horrifying of these being the use of chemical weapons. There have been many accusations against Syria in past years, which have been denied but not effectively rebutted, and the demand for action against the perpetrators remains strong. The international community, divided though it may be, is greatly exercised and pictures of Syrian children fatally affected by chemical attacks have drawn a horrified reaction. Among the global powers, the USA has been highly condemnatory of Syria but until very recently had refrained from intervening militarily against it. It had seemed at times to be on the verge but was apparently held back by former President Obama, who sensed that his country was in no mood to be drawn into yet another military engagement overseas.

There matters might have remained, for it had seemed likely that President Trump with his well-advertised aversion to external entanglements would not permit his country to be drawn into military engagements abroad. But this proved to be a short-lived expectation. Just a few days ago a shower of US missiles came down on Syria in a dramatic statement of US readiness to intervene as and when it felt it should, turning away from its policy of the previous many years.

The missiles did much damage; more important, the attack changed the parameters of the situation and opened up the possibility of the USA becoming an active participant in the Syrian imbroglio. The display of US military strength and readiness to use it changes many of the assumptions that have hitherto driven policy in and around Syria.

The strike itself, perhaps deliberately, was not a decisive intervention, and it does not appear to be a prelude to further attacks from the air or by ground troops. Nor has it had the effect of destabilizing Mr. Assad regime, but it has put the regime on notice so far as the use of chemical weapons is concerned.

The missile attack has also had the effect of hardening the lines between some of the important players. It had been expected that with Mr. Trump in charge there would be some easing of the US-Russia relationship that had run into difficulty, and the initial signs were encouraging, but after strong Russian criticism of the missile attack the distance between the two countries has stretched further. Iran too, which had cautiously advanced towards a rapprochement with USA, has denounced the attack and the careful work of reconciliation between the two countries seems to have been largely undone. It is an even tougher, harsher setting now in which the Syrian war proceeds.

The newly activist USA seen in Syria is visible elsewhere too. So far as India is concerned, a senior US diplomat's observations on Indo-Pak matters have revived some unwelcome ideas about a US role and if unchecked could affect the currently satisfactory India-US relationship. Elsewhere, too, what may be random observations by US officials have provoked strong reactions and raised questions about US intentions ~ in this context, one can look at North Korea which has felt it necessary to make threatening noises against the USA, which may not be convincing but cannot be ignored as they come from a nuclear armed country.

This combination of events is disturbing to the kind of ordered existence traditionally sought by the international community. Maybe this style of US activism will blow over, to be followed before long by a more restrained method of functioning.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary