08/28/2013, 00.00
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Stopping the attack against Damascus before it is too late

by Bernardo Cervellera
The US version of the use of chemical weapons has too many contradictions. Someone does not want to wait for the UN results. It is untrue to think that a military strike would help the peace conference. Instead, it would help Islamists, who want to dominate the opposition.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Arab League are in a hurry to launch punitive action against Syria, guilty in their eyes of using chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on 21 August. Such a decision stems from charges made by the rebels who have posted online videos showing the chilling images of people dead from asphyxiation, children wrapped in shrouds, young people with muscle spasms and frothing at the mouth or with oxygen masks.

Almost immediately, the media circus stressed that the use of chemical weapons crossed Obama's "red line" against military intervention against Damascus.

Eventually, cautious statements by the United States became more confident, buttressed by those of Great Britain, then France, Turkey, Canada, Australia and the Arab League. Syria's traditional allies, Russia, China, and Iran instead reiterated their opposition an intervention. More tentatively, Italy, Germany and Poland also expressed their hostility to an intervention, favouring instead political talks.

At present, as the US fleet is being deployed off the Syrian coast, decisions are being made about an intervention. The latter should last only a few days; it should target sites provided by the rebels; it is not designed to bring down Assad; it will not stop a peace conference the UN and the Arab League are slowly preparing. Indeed, according to Arab sources, an attack against Syria will make such a conference easier to organise,

Since the day when Ghouta was attacked, there has been a crescendo of statements, threats and promises to punish "crimes against humanity", which is how the use of chemical weapons is defined by the UN. At the same time, there has been a continuous drift towards the obvious conclusion that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical attack.

Interventionist countries went first to the United Nations. When Syria and the rebels accepted the presence of inspectors, ensuring a cease-fire, the same countries said "it is too late", claiming that action was needed because "almost certainly" Damascus was responsible for the attack.

Finally, last night, US Vice President Joe Biden said there was "no doubt" that the Syrian government was responsible. So did British Prime Minister David Cameron. Yet doubts do persist.

On 25 August, speaking to the faithful in St Peter's Square, Pope Francis expressed his "great suffering and concern" about the "war between brothers" in Syria. He also called on the international community to "show greater sensitivity towards this tragic situation and do all it can to help the beloved Syrian nation find a solution to a war that is sowing death and destruction."

It is precisely in the name of such "sensitivity", which entail reasonableness and solidarity, that we must point out contradictions that make us oppose a hasty and thoughtless attack.

For the United States, the "evidence" that Damascus launched chemical weapons comes from an intercepted phone call by a Syrian Foreign Ministry official asking questions about a chemical attack, something that provides indirect but insufficient evidence. The more so since the "evidence" has not yet been shared with anyone, not even the UN, and that what we know comes from statements made by anonymous officials to certain media outlets.

In contrast, Russian satellite TV showed two missiles with chemical warheads launched from Duma, an area under rebel control, towards Ghouta, where they killed hundreds of people.

UN Investigators are already at work in Syria, gathering evidence on the use of chemical weapons, but they have had difficulties in the beginning when they came under sniper fire in rebel-controlled areas.

The eagerness to launch an attack makes us forget that the experts are in Syria to determine whether there was a chemical attack and (perhaps but that is not their task) to gather clues about who possibly did it.

But the United States and Great Britain have belittled their work, saying that the gases had already evaporated after a few days. However, according to some scholars, they could not since they tend to leave residual contamination in the air, on walls, hair, skin and clothes for months. Thus, waiting for the UN investigation to finish its job could shed light on many aspects of the story.

Indeed, some military experts and medical doctors question the veracity of the images released by the rebels. Since sarin gas remains active on the skin, they wonder why the volunteers and doctors treating the victims were not wearing any gas mask? We might also wonder why action is being taken now to punish the perpetrators of the heinous massacre in Ghouta, when more than 100,000 people have died in two years of civil war, with no one even lifting a finger?

It seems to us that it is not "too late" to allow the UN to investigate since today Ban Ki-moon said that UN experts had made some convincing findings.

To say that a military attack would facilitate a peace conference also seems quite out of place (outlandish too). A military attack would certainly help the rebels, who at this moment are increasingly losing ground, despite the great help they have received from western states and Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, boosting the opposition is likely to help both the secular wing of the Free Syrian Army, as well as its Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist component.

One of the reasons why a peace conference has been hard to organise is precisely the conflict within the opposition, between secular and Islamist forces. A military attack might weaken Assad, but it would also accentuate rather than lessen the internal divisions in the rebel camp.

When it comes to possible scenarios for the Middle East, one point must be made.

At the geopolitical level, there is the risk of a regional, if not a world war, with Syria, Lebanon (Hizbollah), Iran, Russia, China line up on one side and the US, France, Great Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, etc., on the other.

At the local level, it is hard to fathom what might happen to Syria, except to recognise that it has already become the fiefdom of many fundamentalist Muslims.

For some observers, the country might disintegrate along ethnic boundaries; others suggest that a Kurdish state could emerge from bits of Syria, Iraq and Turkey . . . .

Whatever the case may be, a military attack now would be the perfect trigger for years of violent instability in the Middle East. The result would be to deprive these countries of their best minds, whether Christian or Muslim.

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