x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syria is on fire, but the West has no plan for the flames

The argument by Abdel Bari Atwan in Al Quds that the West has a military plan for the conflict in Syria is mistaken. If only there were such a plan.

The West is preparing to intervene in Syria and is using reports of chemical weapons as a pretext. At least, this was the view expressed last week by Abdel Bari Atwan in a column for the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi. Atwan, one of the Arab world's most seasoned reporters, wrote in Al Quds, the pan-Arab newspaper he has presided over for over two decades, that an intervention was being planned, explicitly drawing a parallel between the current situation in Syria and the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.

Atwan's view is that the recent remarks by Washington and London were the beginning of a political and media push - as with the run-up to the Iraq invasion - to soften public opinion and prepare for a war in Syria, a decision, he argues, that US and UK politicians have already taken behind-the-scenes. The only question, he says, is what action those militaries will take.

But Atwan is wrong. In fact, it is the other way around, which is precisely the problem. For leaders in the US and UK, there is hardly any doubt about what action they would take to topple Bashar Al Assad: they would either implement a no-fly zone (as in Libya) or provide a sharp increase in sophisticated weaponry to the rebels. Troops on the ground are extremely unlikely, as David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, recently pointed out.

The problem is what political moves these powers would take to trigger that action.

When the US president, Barack Obama, said last week that "more investigation" was needed on whether Syria had used chemical weapons, it was clear that he was stalling, seeking to move away from admitting that a "red line" had been crossed, and that therefore something needed to be done. It is certainly true that those pushing Mr Obama towards tougher action - including hawkish Republicans and right-wing Israelis - are part of the same cast who agitated so strongly for an illegal invasion of Iraq.

But that does not immediately tar what they are saying. Indeed, many others with more peaceable credentials have argued the same.

Far from setting out spurious redlines and then jumping into action once they were triggered, the West is retreating from enforcing any red lines at all. Mr Cameron went out of his way to declare Mr Al Assad's use of chemical weapons "limited". This suits the Assad regime perfectly. The message appears clear: as long as any use of such horrific weapons against civilians is on a small enough scale, and ambiguous enough, there will be no red lines crossed and there will be no intervention.

Atwan has argued that any escalation by the West would destroy Syria and bring about a "regional, perhaps a global war".

Atwan may be right in his assessment, but that scenario has already come to pass.

Syria is being destroyed as we speak. The contrast with Iraq is erroneous. Iraq at the start of 2003, like Syria at the start of 2011, was stagnant, locked-down by the brutal rule of a dictatorial system - but it was not in flames. It was the West's bombs that set that country on fire.

Syria today is already on fire. The utter destruction rained on that country by the Assad regime means that no city in the country has escaped bombardment, no one among the millions of Syrians has escaped at least the feeling of fear, or worse, the reality of being displaced or having a family member killed. The country exhibits all the signs of being in the midst of a civil war, something that was only seen in Iraq after years of US occupation.

Nor is it the case that a regional war will occur only after intervention - it is already occurring, with Hizbollah having crossed the border to fight on the side of the regime.

Is it likely that Syria after Assad will be worse? We must accept that is a possibility; it is precisely to avoid that situation that intervention is needed: every day that Syria is on fire is one day closer to the devastating, out of control civil war Syrians so desperately seek to avoid.

That's what is so unfortunate about claims that the recent flurry of western leaders in Arab capitals - Atwan calls this a "council of war" - is to coordinate and prepare military and political plans for an intervention in Syria.

There has been a flurry of activity in western capitals of late, and much pandering to peace. But to imagine that the discussion has been solely, even primarily, about Syria is to misunderstand the view of the West about the conflict in Syria and to misread leaders' intentions.

To contend that the West has a plan in place to deal with Syria's conflict is patently false. Those of us who watch the daily death toll rise in Syria can only say: if only.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai