Chemical weapons force weary world to look at Syria

Friday 06 September 2013 20.50
A protest in Bulgaria over the 21 August chemical attack in Damascus
A protest in Bulgaria over the 21 August chemical attack in Damascus

Here's a story about RTÉ's driver in Beirut, Walid, writes Tony Connelly.

He's a bearish, soft-spoken Lebanese man in his 50s and drives a Chevrolet people carrier which he imported from Los Angeles.

I noticed that when he turned the ignition of his car he reached over the steering wheel to use his left, rather than his right hand. The hand - in fact, the whole arm - was limp.

One day when we were filming in south Beirut he explained what happened to his arm.

"I was on a job to drive a family from Damascus to Beirut a year ago," he explained. "The family were waiting for the father to emerge from the mosque before we would set off. Next to me, parked on the street, was another family sitting in their car.

"A motorcyclist came along the street and lobbed a Molotov Cocktail through the open window."

In the horror of the moment, when he saw children engulfed in flames, Walid actually suffered a trauma-related stroke. "I froze. I couldn't move. I couldn't do anything to help."

Walid was by no means thin-skinned. He had volunteered as an ambulance driver in Beirut between 1977 and 1980 at the height of the Lebanese Civil War.

When he wasn't ferrying the dying and injured to hospital he would take his wife and seven children up to the Chouf Mountains for a picnic in his ambulance.

Following several brain scans doctors in Beirut told Walid that the trauma of what he had witnessed had caused his stroke.

In a similar way the international community has been paralysed by the Syrian conflict.

The metrics of outrage and morality shift depending on your point of view. It is an incredibly divisive issue, not just between governments but also between friends.

People's normal political comfort zones provide little guidance as to the morality of airstrikes, or the morality of doing nothing (calling for a political solution is about as meaningless a position as one can get in the current bloodletting).

Give or take a few tens of thousands here or there, there are at least undeniable facts about the toll the war has taken on human life.

At least 120,000 dead, 200,000 wounded and 7m displaced people, two million of those now marooned beyond Syria's borders, mostly in Lebanon.

The UNHCR says a million children are now refugees outside their own country.

Much of this killing and movement of people has happened over the past 12 months.

In February 2012 there were "only" 7,000 dead as a result of the civil war.

Because of US President Barack Obama's red lines on the use of chemical weapons, the world has been forced to pay attention to Syria at a time when many people had simply grown weary of it.

Now, questions of international norms, of morality, of culpability, of humanity taking a stand, of the dangers of a regional conflagration, even of a Cold War-style confrontation between the US and Russia, have clogged up the globe’s central nervous system.

Charges of hypocrisy are hurled back and forth. "Where was American self-righteousness when Washington quietly supported Saddam Hussein as he gassed Iranian conscripts during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s?" people ask.

"How could western liberals give succour to Bashar Assad by opposing airstrikes?" others demand.

Academics are on every media platform debating the niceties of international law, chemical weapons protocols, legal nuances over humanity's responsibility to protect, and so on.

Russia and China have become champions of international law insofar as it concerns the UN Security Council and force; the Obama administration is probing any foxhole which would provide legal (if not moral) cover for airstrikes.

Domestic politics in Britain has been poisoned by Prime Minister David Cameron's defeat in the House of Commons at the hands of Labour and rebel Tories.

French President Francois Hollande appears determined to support America despite the fact that two thirds of French voters oppose military action.

While the images of the attack in Ghouta were horrific, even by Syrian standards, some observers ask, why the fuss about chemical weapons, since many, many more civilians have died in perhaps more gruesome circumstances?

"Chemical weapons scarcely represent a meaningful measure of the suffering in the Syrian civil war or the need to find some solution," observes Anthony H. Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

"If one only considers the possible number of total dead, in the fighting, there are no clear estimates of what has actually happened."

This is because there are very few journalists inside Syria providing unbiased, reliable information about the war (nine foreign journalists have been killed reporting from there so far, many more local journalists are also thought to have died).

As the war has become more vicious, the attitudes of local people, and just about everyone else, have hardened.

With the regime now facing airstrikes, its public utterances have stretched credibility (one of its latest is that al-Qaeda kidnapped children on the Syrian coast and took them hundreds of kilometres to the Damascus suburbs, gassed them, then filmed the aftermath for western consumption).

We may never know for sure who launched the chemical attack on 21 August, but by now it barely matters, since all sides have entrenched their positions ever more deeply.

What started as another hopeful uprising in the Arab Spring has - according to the competing narratives - turned into a dystopian, existential battle, in which al-Qaeda and its offshoots rip out the hearts of regime militia, who in turn have gassed children or cut their throats.

Syria is an unholy mess.

One thing we can do is to understand why Syria is Syria, and why it is now the focus of attention.

Bashar al-Assad was ushered into power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled as president since 1970.

Bashar was the soft-spoken, unassuming ophthalmologist who had spent time studying in London. He was never regarded as leadership material.

His brother Basil was more charismatic, but his expected succession was ended when he was killed in a car accident in 1994.

After Basil’s death Bashar was quietly moved up through the ranks of the bureaucracy and the military power structures.

When his father died after a long illness he assumed power with the full backing of the regime elite.

The Assad dynasty is rooted in the Alawite sect, a moderate off-shoot of Shia Islam with its power base around the coastal city of Latakia.

While once regarded as a heretical branch of Islam, Alawites were nurtured by the French during their mandate between the world wars, and they moved into positions of power and influence within the military.

Hafez Assad took control of the Baath Party, the pan-Arab socialist movement, in the late 60s and consolidated secular Alawite pre-eminence, but with support from the Sunni business class.

Like its political cousin in Iraq, the Baath Party created a large state bureaucracy, underpinned by an authoritarian matrix of security services, dominated by the vast mukhabarat, or secret police.

Since colonialism had given capitalism a bad name, Syria built an outsized public sector.

It provided jobs, but became highly politicised, with loyal party figures using bureaucratic power bases to enrich themselves financially.

The party machine owed its resilience to a tight clique of figures within the public and military sectors, often linked by blood and the Alawite religion.

The ruling clique knew their wealth and power depended on the regime's survival.

The system's other watchword was stability. Surrounded as it was by regional conflict, the Syrian dynasty struck a bargain with the population: stability and some economic rewards where it counted, and in return, acceptance of the heavy shadow of the security apparatus.

Externally Syria projected the image of a powerful Arab country which could square up to Israel and support pan-Arab unity.

When Bashar came to power at the age of 34 there was a frisson of interest in the west.

His inaugural statements spoke of the need for economic reforms and a more modern, outward looking polity.

His first months were dubbed the "Damascus Spring."

However, the decade that stretched ahead would be fraught with international and regional upheaval which did not augur well for any whispers of democracy.

Syria had long championed the anti-Israeli, Arab cause.

It was supported by Moscow during the Cold War, and it was allied with the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

In the 1980s it sponsored Hezbollah, the radical Shia organisation founded, armed and funded by Iran, and later it supported Hamas.

The Assad doctrine was to sit on as many fences as possible, to hedge any bets it could, in order to secure its goal of stability in a dangerous region.

Under Bashar any hopes of overtures to the west were dashed by circumstances.

The intifada had just got under way in the West Bank, the September 11 attacks soon followed, and then the US invaded first Afghanistan, then Iraq, right on Syria's doorstep.

Bashar Assad, a more cosmopolitan figure than his father, was tempted to open up to the west, and even to pursue a peace treaty with Israel, one being potentially brokered by Turkey.

But in the unforgiving atmosphere post-9/11, neo-conservative America had no tolerance of a regime that seemed ambivalent about terrorism.

Some in Washington even looked askance at Syria as a possible next target for regime change.

As the US got bogged down in Iraq many foreign fighters were transiting through Syria.

The rhetoric from Congress became more hostile, and personally insulting about Bashar.

In response he used the foreign fighters option as a tool to secure as much leverage as possible with the US.

On occasion his regime would arrest al-Qaeda fighters and imprison them, other times the regime quietly facilitated their passage to Iraq.

But his prospects took another turn for the worse in 2005, when Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Beirut.

A UN investigation was soon pointing the finger of blame at Syrian intelligence - which still had a massive presence in Lebanon ever since Syria invaded during the civil war in 1976 - and Damascus was once again feeling the heat of international odium.

By the time President Obama was elected, Bashar Assad was beginning to look like a survivor.

He and his wife Asma, glamorous and cosmopolitan, were hosted in European capitals.

US politicians such as John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi travelled to Damascus in the hope that the engagement of Syria was now a possibility.

By 2011, though, the Arab Spring would send tremors through the region, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and in other Arab dictatorships.

The underlying socio-economic conditions that created the pent-up rage - a vast cohort of unemployed, or under-paid young males, often with university degrees - combined with the sudden liberating tools of social media, applied just as much in Syria as they did elsewhere.

Despite the glamour of the Assads, and some piecemeal economic reform, Syria was still a decrepit, state-heavy, crony-based and authoritarian system.

When the revolts broke out across the Arab World the Assad regime loftily diagnosed their roots, blindly secure in the delusion that Syria - because of its long history of stability and its somewhat heroic status on the Arab Street - was immune.

These other Arab dictators were old men. Assad was young. The other regimes had been supported by the US. Syria had held the line and rolled with the punches Washington was dishing out.

Ultimately it was a fatal miscalculation. What Assad didn't realise was that, however popular he might have been as a leader, ordinary people were simply fed up with an oppressive security apparatus that suffocated freedom, and degraded their dignity.

When a group of children, mostly teenagers, wrote some irreverent slogans on a school wall in the south western city of Deraa, the regime's response was to arrest them, take them to Damascus, interrogate and torture them.

When their families and friends marched in protest the regime responded the only way its history and reflexes knew how.

It opened fire, killing four protesters. The Syrian revolution began.

The regime's reflex inability to countenance real reform and to dismantle the security apparatus meant that more protests met more ruthless repression. The civil war would soon follow.

According to Lorenzo Trombetta, an Italian journalist based in Beirut who wrote a PhD thesis on the personnel behind the Assad dynasty, the Arab Spring stood no chance in Syria.

"The notion of reforming even a part, never mind the whole of the regime, when the Arab Spring happened would have meant the regime collapsing," says Trombetta, who has been banned from entering Syria since 2008.