UN Debate Stalls US Attack on Syria

Friday, August 30, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

At the United Nations, despite the threat of a United States missile attack on Syria, momentum is actually shifting away from imminent action in favor of a more patient "wait and see" approach spearheaded by the secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon.

On Wednesday, the Russian and Chinese delegation walked out of a Security Council emergency meeting on Syria triggered by a United Kingdom draft resolution calling for humanitarian military intervention in Syria "to save civilian lives" in light of the recent ghastly chemical weapon attack that the US, UK and France insist without a shadow of doubt was the work of the Syrian regime.

That opinion is not shared by many UN member states, including some non-permanent members of the Security Council, who prefer to defer a judgment until the UN investigation team in Syria delivers its report; according to Ban, those investigators "need four days" to complete their work.

The UK's introduction of the resolution "put a mini-brake" on the possibility of an attack, according to a South American diplomat whose country is at present a member of the Security Council and spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity. "We don't want another Iraq war fiasco," the Latin diplomat insisted, alluding to the "WMD (weapons of mass destruction) hoax" of the 2003 US-led invasion of a sovereign Arab country.

Another European diplomat relayed the same sentiment, adding that the majority of European Union member states "including Germany, Austria, Italy and others" are adamantly opposed to any "preemptory strike" on Syria based on "inconclusive evidence''.

Meanwhile, Syria's envoy to the UN presented his government's case against any attack and claimed that the rebels have launched three new chemical attacks against the Syrian military, asking the UN to investigate those areas where it claimed the attacks took place. Damascus's insistence that the rebels were behind the gas attack on August 21 in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds has been flatly rejected by the US yet somewhat endorsed by a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Carla del Ponte, who has twice - on Monday as well as May 6, 2013 - stated there is evidence that the rebels have used sarin gas.

Clearly, there is no interest whatsoever in Washington, London, or Paris in information that belies their confident accusations against Damascus. Their common chorus that absolves the rebels of any potential culpability suffers from a self-delusional oversight of what the rebels, at present on the defensive in multiple fronts, are capable of doing for the sake of turning the tide after the recent military successes of Syrian regime forces.

The case against a US attack on Syria

There are, in fact, several compelling reasons as to why any US attack on Syria would be deemed illegal and unjustified from the vantage point of international law and global norms. First, the requirement of UN Security Council authorization under Chapter VII is not a minor obstacle that can be obviated by simply invoking the "responsibility to protect" doctrine which, is being corrupted into a unilateral license to wage war.

Second, there is strong circumstantial evidence that supports Damascus's defense of being clear of the August 21 attack: Damascus had consented to a UN inspection, and the investigators had arrived in Damascus to look into prior incidents, which the government insists were perpetrated by the rebels. Given the Syrian army's recent impressive victories, with help of the Lebanon's Hezbollah, the government had no need to resort to such desperate measures that were bound to backfire in the international community.

The absence of motivation on the part of Assad's regime should be compared to the desperate position of the Syrian opposition and its frantic search somehow to change the conflict's momentum in its favor.

In other words, the rebels had strong motivation, and certainly the will power and external support, to explode a deadly canister, cause mayhem and then blame the government - and thus give the US and its allies the proper excuse to launch an attack. Yet somehow, almost none of the US pundits, such as Richard Haas, the head of influential Council on Foreign Relations, who have been advocating a unilateral US strike on Syria have given the slightest attention to this important factor.

Fortunately, the international community today is more alert than it was in 2002 and 2003. That simply means that when a US secretary of State goes on record and claims solid evidence against an Arab leader, he inevitably conjures the image of his predecessor, Colin Powell, who deceived the international community about Iraq when he presented his "compelling evidence" at the Security Council in February 2003. Powell has since then come to "regret" in his autobiography his warmongering deception and, naturally, one wonders if present Secretary of State John Kerry will emulate him if the US goes to war against Syria, a war that is now labeled as a "limited strike" to take out Assad's WMD capability.

Problems and prospects of a 'limited strike'

Indeed, what will be achieved by a "limited" US strike on Syria? If the intention is to target Assad's chemical weapons stockpile, then the US should be concerned about the serious human and environmental destruction caused by such a bombing. An operation aimed at "saving lives" could cost many more lives than the combined chemical attacks in Syria so far.

On the other hand, a limited strike that would not cause a substantial shift in the balance of contending forces in Syria may actually backfire on the US and send a message about a weak superpower. The Syrian army is armed with the Russian Iskander missiles, which can target the US naval forces in the region, thus prompting a strong US retaliation, not to mention retaliatory strikes against Israel, altogether promising a wider and more extensive war than the one at present urged through the mainstream US media.

Concerning the latter, outlets such as CNN have turned themselves into uncritical props for the US's latest warmongering in the Middle East, with the American network exceeding itself in its various news programs to instill the justification for a US strike, all but excluding an informed discussion that focuses on the possibility of a rebel atrocity.

In the event of a US attack, the chances are that the upcoming Group of 20 September summit in St Petersburg would be cancelled and US-Russia relations would sink to a new low reminiscent of the Cold War. With China standing shoulder to shoulder with Russia at the Security Council, the US is likely to harm its relations with China as well, not to mention a bulk of the Muslim world that would greet such an attack as yet another sign of Western imperialism.

Even the military junta in Egypt has opposed a US strike on Syria, in spite of the fact that the new Syria crisis has brought it timely respite in deflecting public attention away from on-going atrocities in Cairo. Perhaps the authors of the August 21 gas attack in Syria had multiple intentions that traversed Syria, often considered a "first step" toward regime change in Iran, per a 2009 Brookings Institution report.

Little wonder, then, that Iran has reacted strongly to the reports of imminent US attack on Syria and will likely assist Damascus all it can to confront the "aggressors." Without doubt, a US attack on Syria will spell doom for the prospects of a new US-Iran diplomatic engagement.

On the whole, then, the price to be paid for a "limited strike" is too high and the net gains vague and uncertain, which is why the mood at the UN is guardedly optimistic that war can be averted.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) .  Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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Source: Asia Times Online

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 *These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints. 

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