Under the Shadows of the Levant: A Syrian Question

As the situation in the Syrian civil war continues to worsen, the world is faced with one glaring question: What to do? Can the situation be salvaged? Can the al-Assad regime, with the aid of Iran, China and Russia actually regain control? Can the West win the proxy war? What will happen to all those chemical weapons? Above all else the world must answer the first question: What to do? At this point, it maybe best for the world to adopt a policy of containment, instead of intervention.

On 06MAY2013 a leading member of the UN Commission for Inquiry, Carla Del Ponte dropped a bombshell: There are indications that the Sarin use reported in Syria reported in Syria several weeks ago was actually done by the rebels.  If its true, then this is the nightmare that the world has been dreading all along: That chemical weapons had fallen into the hands of non-state actors active in Syria; some of which are linked to Al-Qaida.

This development, of course, is a threat to everyone involved in the proxy war now raging in Syria. Iran, Russia and China – long supporters of the al-Assad regime – want a friendly, pliable government in Syria to help offset Israel’s domination in the region. The last thing they want is to get sucked into a long, dirty war with no end in sight, involving chemical weapons. If this were to happen, we can expect to see Russia and China pulling out fast, with Iran – having no choice in the matter since they are heavily invested in dominating the region – getting sucked in deeper.

The West, on the other hand, are long supporters of the democratic portions of the Syrian rebellion; a position made harder now as the line between the somewhat democratic and secular Free Syrian Army and the more extremist salafist jihadi groups has been blurred. Western powers face the very difficult question of how to selectively support the rebel groups in Syria in order to ensure that any support they give – be it weapons, medicine or other support – do not fall into the ‘wrong’ rebels’ hands. An almost impossible task.

One thing that both parties of the proxy war can agree on, however, is their mutual interest in preventing the huge stockpiles of chemical weapons owned by the Syrian military from falling into rebel hands. If this happens, not only chemical weapons use in Syria be much more common, but many of these weapons will find their way to other conflict areas/regions where jihadi elements are active: North West China, the Caucasus and Chechnya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, and North Africa. Some of these weapons will also undoubtedly find their ways to the open market where everyone with a suitcase full of cash can purchase Sarin or VX shells.

All parties in this proxy war are desperate to prevent this from happening. More importantly, the World is desperate to prevent this from happening. Imagine an artillery shell full of VX, rigged as an IED, being activated in a crowded mall. The situation in Syria, however, means that the Government of Syria is rapidly losing its ability to control their stockpiles. What is the world to do?

There are basically two options available: Intervention or Containment. Option one, intervention, is unpalatable. The United States had pretty much spent all of its strategic bandwidth in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people will not tolerate another long, ugly war in the Middle East. Plus the widely held perspective that Syria holds no pressing national interest for the United States and the Pivot to the Pacific strategy that Obama adopted meant that the U.S. will focus elsewhere. Likewise, other NATO countries do not wish to involve themselves. France, for instance, has their own war in Mali to think about. A war that is much more popular with their domestic population. The rest of the Europeans are facing a financial crisis. The last thing they want to do is to go gallivanting about Syria on a prolonged mission with no clear objectives.

On the other side, Russia and China have no interest in embroiling their troops in the Syrian mess. They have just enough boots on the ground to protect their interests and nothing more. They support the al-Assad regime with materiel and some training, but that’s about it. Iran, of course, has deeper agendas and ties in Syria. Ultimately, it wants to come out on the other side as the dominant presence in the Middle East, but deploying the Iranian Army or Revolutionary Guard to Syria will quickly deplete Iran of its capability to operate elsewhere.

Since intervention is out of the question, the only option left is containment. This may sound cruel to you, but if the jihadis and the Government of Syria continue to fight things out in Syria, they’re not going to raise havoc elsewhere in the world. I believe this is what Israel has been doing all along. Its airstrike on a Syrian weapons facility was aimed to prevent advanced weapons from leaving Syria. As we can see so far, this is all Israel is interested in. Their troops have responded to fire from the Syrian side, yes, but had made no moves o actually enter the Syrian border.

The best way forward is for the rest of the world, including the parties involved in this proxy war, to adopt the same strategy. To force a peace in Syria is impossible at this time as it will require an expenditure of personnel and materiel with no appreciable gain. However, containment is still possible. If not seizing the chemical weapons outright, then at least ensuring that they will never leave the Syrian border. Whatever happens in Syria must then be chalked up in the ‘necessary evil column.’ This is unpalatable to more progressive/liberal elements everywhere, but the alternatives range from very expensive to downright nightmarish.

Intervention in Syria is an unattractive, and nonviable option for anyone involved. However, the chemical weapons stockpiles need to be secured in order to prevent them from being used elsewhere in the world. Containment is the only option that is doable, and viable in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately this will mean allowing the war in Syria to continue with its horrific loss of life. An unfortunate turn of events, yes, but necessary when viewed from a purely pragmatist point of view. To allow the situation in Syria to spiral out of control, and thousands of WMDs to leave its border, is to open the gates to events with unthinkable consequences.

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