UN prepares Syria peace talks even as West readies missiles
Even as the sound of war drums against Syria amplifies in Washington, London and Paris, a special task force of top diplomats led by United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is stepping-up preparations for a peace conference at the UN in Geneva.
The UN Security Council convenes on Wednesday in New York to discuss reactions to the use of chemical weapons, while a meeting of eleven “friends of Syria” in Istanbul today told the Syrian opposition to expect missile strikes in the next few days against President Bashar al Assad’s forces. At the same time, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked Brahimi to continue building momentum for the peace talks.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis continues with 1.7 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and nearly four million displaced within Syria. Now, monstrous chemical weapons are compounding it. Soon, it will be widened by the inevitable collateral damage from cruise missile strikes designed to stamp out the chemical weapons.
At this point, the threats of limited military intervention look like a tactic to force Assad’s regime to attend the peace conference not from a position of strength because of recent battlefield gains but as a supplicant reeling from American cruise missile strikes.
However, a team of UN investigators on site in Syria has not yet officially reported on whether chemical weapons are being widely used and who is responsible for firing them, including at the outskirts of Damascus.
Washington, London and Paris are convinced that chemical weapons are being widely used by Syrian government forces and White House spokesman Jay Carney said today the question wasn’t whether President Barack Obama would respond, but how and when.
The only concrete indication so far came from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Frontiers), which said its affiliates around Damascus treated about 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms”, including 355 dead. The symptoms are consistent with toxic gas but MSF has said nothing about who used it.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is counseling prudence but seems to agree with the White House. “Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law,” he said before the departure of UN investigators. “Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.”
Russia seems certain that the missile strikes will happen. It started flying citizens out of Damascus today and a Twitter post by deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, remarked that the West “behaves towards the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade.” That sets the hostile tone for the Security Council meeting.
The US, France and Britain can strike selected targets in Syria with impunity because neither of the major opponents, Russia nor China, can retaliate. Nor can Assad respond militarily against American, British or French interests. However, the civil wars in Syria could become more intractable especially if the Western strikes fail to weaken Assad’s forces severely enough.
The sudden Western eagerness to intervene militarily without incontrovertible proof against the Syrian government is causing puzzlement. It is understandable that the Whitehouse cannot allow Assad to win for that would be a victory for Iran and Russia against the West and Saudi Arabia. But destroying his airfields and ammunition dumps may cause Syria to fall into the hands of fierce and well-armed fighters affiliated to al Qaeda.
Western powers insist they will not allow that to happen. But who knows how enemies react when cruise missiles start to fly? No Middle East war ends as desired; the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan bears witness to that.
Some of the military planning took place at a top secret meeting in Jordan today of officials from neighboring countries, the US, Britain and France. The tight blanket of secrecy signals the seriousness of Western intent to severely punish the use of chemical weapons.
There is widespread agreement among Western and Asian countries, including Russia and China, that deployment of chemical weapons cannot be left unpunished. But both Moscow and Beijing disagree strongly that there is sufficient proof of their widespread use in Syria or that the rockets were fired by Assad’s forces.
This disagreement means that military intervention in Syria, however limited, cannot win approval in the UN Security Council because Russia and China will place vetoes. So Washington and its supporters will have to act on their own.
The legal rationale is available for intervention, whether massive or just a few cruise missiles, without Security Council approval. Pro-Syrian government fighters have fired rockets several times into Turkey, a key member of the Western NATO alliance. That allows Turkey to invoke help from the NATO allies similarly to the US, which asked them to help in Afghanistan after its homeland was attacked by terrorists trained there.
Limited precision cruise missile strikes on Syrian government airfields, ammunition dumps and command and control centers would severely weaken the Assad regime without cost in American lives. That might turn his generals against him and force him to participate seriously in a Geneva peace conference. He could even negotiate his exit from power.
Moscow sees such a negotiated exit as a desirable solution, so long as the post Assad Syria does not turn into a US satellite and Assad is not given a death sentence. But Washington cancelled talks on possible solutions with Russian diplomats at the Hague over the weekend because of the changed circumstances caused by the alleged chemical weapons use.
That injected bitterness and uncertainty in the joint efforts with Russia for the UN-sponsored peace conference on Syria, initiated earlier this year by Secretary of State John Kerry. Today, Damascus accused Kerry of lying when he insisted there was “undeniable” evidence of a large-scale chemical attack most probably launched by government forces. So prospects for the peace conference remain unclear.