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03 September 2013

Gulf feels heat of Syria crisis

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The regional implications of western military intervention are potentially dangerous, but doing nothing means countless more deaths

By Tariq A. Al Maeena

Last week, as many Gulf residents returned from holidaying abroad and began preparing for the new academic year, there was apprehension about the escalation of rhetoric concerning large-scale military action in Syria.

The Syrian conflict has been a long-drawn and draining exercise in bloodshed that seems to have no end. It took an ominous turn recently when it was alleged that the ruling Al Assad regime had used chemical weapons against its own people, a charge quickly dismissed by the Syrian government.

Western leaders mobilised early last week to up the ante and forge a military response and Gulf residents were left to decipher when such an attack would be come. But as the week drew to an end, there were signs of reluctance from some of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The Russians have always been adamant against any form of military action or intervention in Syria, labelling it a civil war best determined by the will of the Syrians without foreign interference. On the other hand, countries in the West have been aghast at the intensity of violence that President Bashar Al Assad has demonstrated against his detractors. This week however, restraint followed the earlier calls for immediate military action. Meanwhile, UN inspectors were quickly dispatched and were on the ground in Syria till Friday to examine evidence to determine whether chemical weapons were indeed used and by whom.

The German and Chinese leadership, who want Al Assad to step down, want further political dialogue to end the impasse between the warring factions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “China calls on all parties to exercise restraint and calm,” adding that a political solution was “the only realistic way out on the Syrian issue.” An editorial in the People’s Daily, a reflection of Chinese government policy warned that the “use of force against Syria would cause even graver consequences than the war in Iraq”.

The British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for military intervention. Many parliamentarians vividly remember the folly of UK’s participation in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq based on fabricated charges of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the loss of British lives.

And in the US, President Barack Obama, who once said that the use of chemical weapons would be the determining “red line”, seems to be holding back. It is the US who many in the region say would orchestrate a coalition of nations to lead the charge. Facing reluctance from the major powers to form an international attack force coalition, Obama has indicated that he is not willing to violate international laws and act as a world policeman without a specific mandate from the United Nations. That mandate has yet to be provided, possibly until the final report is submitted to the world body by the inspectors. But that alone may not stop Obama from going it alone.

The French government has shown reluctance for an immediate military intervention until the UN inspectors have completed their investigations and submitted their report to the world body. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a minister in the French government has stated that “before acting, we need proof”.

So what exactly do some Gulf residents have to say? Abbas, an economist, feels that the longer Al Assad is given a free hand, the worse it will be for Syrians. “Look, he has had two years and more of criminal activities against his own people. More than 100,000 innocent lives have been lost. There are some two million Syrian refugees. He is refusing to step down, content in the thought that killing an entire opposition will help him retain power. Day by day, the killing continues. Can he not see that he will never, and I emphasise ‘never’, be recognised as a legitimate leader by not just his people, but also by the people of this region, even if he succeeds in his diabolical plan?”

Mary, a retired US school teacher and linguist, adds: “Personally, I feel that the Syria crisis is a civil war and as such we ALL should be staying out of it and letting them get on with doing each other in and then we can ALL find a way to deal with the victor. Getting involved is, I feel, going to be detrimental to our own country’s interests over there. For too long Israel has pulled the US into its war designs and machinations to claim/control areas over there. I do agree with Obama that we should stop sending our troops into all of these regional conflicts. It’s been draining in every conceivable way. No one in the general population in the US wants any involvement in another conflict somewhere in the Middle East. Iraq began the same darn way ... in from the air first. Once we commit to interference I don’t see how we can limit our involvement when others are forced, in one way or another, to back their players as well. I just wish we would stop bowing to the desires and will of Israel. It’s going to blow that whole region if we don’t sit back and take a long, hard, cold look at what the result is likely to be before we take the first action.”

Sian Claire Owen, an editor at Geopolitical Information Service, warns that any US-led intervention would be akin to opening Pandora’s box. She writes: “If the West is to intervene in the Syrian crisis in response to allegations …, then it risks escalating the situation throughout the Middle East. It is arguable whether a ‘surgical strike’ will prevent the further use of chemical weapons. It will, however, increase the potential for dangerous escalation throughout the region. No one has any real idea about the consequences of military action against the Al Assad regime.”

To a war-weary region, one that has seen conflicts increase in magnitude in recent decades, such caution is precisely why unease has overcome many in the region. But what remain the alternatives?

[Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena]

(Courtesy: Gulf News)

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