This was a busy week in the ongoing horror show known as Syria. There was another UN investigation of an alleged government massacre of rebels and possibly civilians, fighting broke out for the first time in the capital city of Damascus, and Wednesday morning a bomb attack killed senior members of the Syrian government.
And there was one other story. The Syrian military began moving its stockpile of chemical weapons.
It might be time for all of us to take a minute and focus on Syria.
The Syrian rebellion or civil war is now more than a year old. Some 10-15,000 people have died, and the rate of violence has increased sharply in recent months. For most Americans, this probably looks like the time-honored tale of a Middle Eastern dictator finally facing his due and using every tactic available to hang on to power. While that is certainly true, the reality is neither so simple nor so easy.
President Bashar Al-Assad, the son who inherited the family business from his autocrat dad, is an Alawite. In Syria, the Alawi are a religious (Shi’a Muslim) and regional (mountain/coastal area) minority that was once near the bottom of society. When France took control of Syria after World War I, Paris faced a hostile majority population of Sunni Muslims. To maintain control, they recruited minority groups, including the Alawi, to the military. When the French left Syria, the military — and the Alawi — eventually took control.
It now appears as if the once oppressed Alawi, who turned the tables on their oppressors, will see the tables turn again, and the results are likely to be bloody. Very bloody.
And to make it just a little more complicated, the players in and outside the region find themselves all tangled up. Iran, Syria’s official friend, has sent military support to the regime, but its public pronouncements are increasingly ambivalent. (Last week, the Iranians uncharacteristically announced they would welcome talks on Syria.) Meanwhile, America’s friend Iraq also supports Syria. Israel, though no friend of Assad, prefers stability and predictability. It has concerns about what changes a rebel-led Syrian government would pursue.
On the other side, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are pumping money and guns to the rebels, at least some of whom have been characterized as Sunni extremists. (In the policy world, that’s code for “terrorists.”)
Russia is probably the only great power that is directly involved. It continues to provide military support to the Assad regime, and it will block moves by the UN to undermine the government. As for the U.S., there is not a lot it can do. A military intervention would likely be a nightmare. Washington can support the civilian victims, talk sternly to our allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar about the people they are supporting with money and guns, and prepare plans to secure and remove the chemical weapons, but U.S. leverage is limited.
Yes, about those chemical weapons …
Syria has a large store of chemical and perhaps some biological weapons that were built primarily as a poor man’s answer to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Mustard gas. Sarin. Perhaps the so-called V agents, the newest and most deadly of the chemical weapons. A year into a civil war in which a minority is attempting to hold on to power by force, it is reasonable to wonder what the fate of those weapons will be.
U.S., Israeli and Jordanian government analysts are concerned about the status and future of those munitions. Israel worries they will end up in the hands of Hezbollah or other groups that will use them — or not use them, and instead hope to reap deterrent advantages from the mere possession of those weapons. The U.S. worries they will be transferred to groups whose targets are more likely to be New York or Washington. Jordan fears a kind of “I’m going down, so I’m going to settle old scores and take as many of you with me as I can” chemical attack.
But there is another possibility, one that may be more likely. Assad might employ chemical weapons against his own population. It would carry great risk, but he would not be the first in the neighborhood to do so. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (Iran did not) and to suppress his own rebellion. In neither case did he pay a penalty for doing so. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser also used chemical weapons, in Yemen in the 1960s.
I tend to be a doubter of a lot of doom and gloom. I think it is possible that there could be “leakage” from Syria’s chemical arsenal, which could be used — and that would be terrible — but I think the odds are against the terrorists, not us. Don’t get me wrong. Everything sensible should be done to prevent that, but there have been other collapses, and it hasn’t happened. Why? Probably because it’s hard: hard for extremists to find the right people – people in charge of the chemical arsenal who can be bribed or persuaded — and hard to seek these people out without exposing yourself to detection.
What concerns me, though, are two big possibilities. The first is a situation where a minority in power believes that if it loses, the majority will seek revenge, and that it won’t be pretty. That’s an “all in” situation, where “all in” means something. Not a TV show. Not a game with money and plastic chips. ALL in. And by “all,” I mean something like using chemical weapons.
The second thing I fret about is the religious character of the division. Analysts have long warned about a possible contagion of sectarian (religious) violence, primarily Sunni Muslim versus Shi’a Muslim (and other Muslim sects). The fear is that Sunni-Shi’a violence would spread from Syria to Iraq or maybe Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It would be vicious. And it would be destabilizing at a moment of political change and uncertainty in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.
It has to be said, however, that it didn’t happen in Iraq. And it hasn’t happened more generally. It’s also worth remembering that positive outcomes are possible. One can take comfort in the fact that the most horrific outcomes are rare. But given the cast of characters and the complexity of this problem, one should expect that there will be twists and turns ahead.
It’s probably time for all of us to start paying attention to Syria, very close attention.