It has been almost 3 years since airstrikes first began in Syria with the stated purpose of ousting an illegitimate government – that of Bashar al-Assad. The predominant view of those in the West is that Assad’s regime had officially become illegitimate the moment Assad used chemical weapons on his own civilian population in the village of Ghouta, a year before the bombing campaign begun. Yet, it seems as though almost every ‘fact’ surrounding the conflict in Syria is subject to severe controversy and debate. If one is to construct a set of informed beliefs regarding the political situation in Syria and a possible route to peace, it might be helpful to provide a brief overview of these controversies.
Sarin gas is a purely synthetic nerve agent that was originally produced as a pesticide in Germany in 1938. It is a colourless, odourless nerve agent that does not last long in the environment and evaporates quickly into the atmosphere. It is among the most common nerve agents possessed by those sovereign states that produce and possess chemical weapons; the United States has an estimated 5,000 kilograms of sarin gas in their stockpile.
On August 21, 2013, the village of Ghouta had been attacked by a chemical nerve agent that had left upwards of 1,000 people – mainly women and children – dead. Although evidence of the attack was not attained, the human rights watch, as well as notable figures in American politics such as Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama, had not only implicated Assad’s government in the attack, but had already hypothesized that the nerve agent involved was that of sarin gas. The Syrian government had been known to keep a large stockpile of chemical weapons in their arsenal. A year after the attack on Ghouta – at the behest of both political and non-political international bodies – Syria agreed to begin the process of destroying their chemical weapons stockpile and, by June 23, 2014, Syria had officially gotten rid of their sarin stockpile. Yet, this did not stop the use of chemical weapons during the conflict in Syria. In December of 2015, an MP of the Turkish Parliament, Eren Erdem, had given an exclusive interview to Russia Today (RT) in which he claimed that he was in possession of phone recordings of exchanges that had occurred between members of the Turkish authorities and members of ISIS in which ISIS members had received the ingredients to produce sarin gas and had been allowed to do so on Turkish territory. Russian intelligence had subsequently revealed economic ties between the Turkish government and ISIS concerning the transportation of oil across several states in the Middle East. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced opposition party member Erdem as a traitor that should be tried for “treason”. Turkish authorities had also recently arrested two journalists for reporting a story in which several of their own military officers had blown the whistle on Turkey’s transportation of arms to rebels in Syria. Just last week, CIA director John Brennan publicly stated that ISIS not only has access to chemical weapons but has used them in battle.
In 1982, Hafez al-Assad quelled the uprising in Hama in which government forces killed 200-500 fighters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s military wing, upon which a subsequent 27-day military campaign in the city killed 10,000-40,000 civilians. Hafez’s death in 2000 saw the rise of his son to presidency, in which Bashar ran unopposed and received 97 percent of the popular vote. During the mid to late 2000s, Syria stood to watch events unfold in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Ukraine; as each region’s governments were either replaced or left to endure sectarian violence by competing powers. In the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq particularly, it had become quite clear to the entire world that the basis upon which Western military intervention had been conducted was a blatant lie. Many believe this to be the same case with Ukraine and Libya with one additional difference – that, in a time many have dubbed ‘Cold War 2.0’, these regions had governments in power that were allied to Russia.
Since Hafez al-Assad had come into power, the Assad family had been allies with Russia; arms contracts that his father began in 1970 his son extended until the present day. Likewise, another one of Syria’s neighbours to the East, Saudi Arabia, has had a very similar long-standing allegiance with the U.S. While the U.S. has promoted or directly undertaken the displacement of certain government entities under the guise of humanitarian causes, Saudi Arabia on the other hand – a country known as the harshest violator of human rights in the world – remains an ally. The competitors for power over the Syrian state consist of a handful of rebel groups that are mostly Islamic jihadist; among those are the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State. And we have already seen that, in the case of Libya, the overthrow of Gaddafi’s ‘regime’ was eventually followed by gains in territory for ISIS within the last 5 years that Libya has been plagued with sectarian violence.
Coalition Military Interventions
The United States led coalition began their bombing campaign in Syria in 2014 with two stated goals – ousting Assad’s government and destroying ISIS presence in Syria. Within a year and half, the US has conducted approximately 3,000 airstrikes that aimed at ISIS targets. Many of these airstrikes have been on non-ISIS targets as well, often destroying sites of critical Syrian infrastructure. After the Paris massacre last November, the French military became a part of the U.S. led coalition along with the British who followed this decision a month later. Unlike the French – who sought to eliminate the terrorist problem that had now come to their doorstep – Prime Minister David Cameron, along with many members in his cabinet, reasoned that Assad’s government must go. Russian military intervention began early last September and has, to date, hit 1,100 confirmed jihadist targets – both ISIS and other rebel groups – in Syria. Both Russian public and military officials, most notably President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and General Igor Kovashenko, have each publicly stated that the official Russian stance on the situation in Syria does not recognize any significant distinction between what many have dubbed ‘moderate’ rebels with those that are said to be ‘extremist’ by comparison. It is an unfortunate consequence of airstrikes, even if they are ‘humanitarian’ in nature, that they cause many civilian casualties. It is often difficult during times of war, especially civil war, to accurately determine the number of civilian and non-civilian deaths. What is of note, is that the U.S. led coalition is neither permitted nor aided by the Syrian government in their attempts to rid the country of what is, perhaps, the biggest threat to their national security. Given that the Russian military has had both permission and direct support in both intel and operation from their Syrian counterpart, it is both the only legal military intervention under international law and the only military air-force operation that is receiving direct intelligence from Syrian sources. The U.S. government has repeatedly rejected offers to share it’s military intel on ISIS targets with the Russian government.
The State of Affairs As We Know It
As it stands, there is no conclusive evidence that directly implicates Assad’s government as being responsible for biological warfare against it’s own citizens. The foundations upon which accusations of illegitimacy towards the current Syrian government are neither exclusive to Assad’s administration nor is it clear that they serve a purpose regarding peace and improvement of overall well-being for the Syrian people. Given that some of the stated intentions for intervention are more coherent then others, it is not even evident that the current measures being undertaken in Syria by certain foreign powers are the right ones, for the right reasons, or for even for their stated purposes. What is needed then, if there is to be any peaceful or agreeable solution to the Syrian conflict, is for an honest and meaningful dialogue about the actual nature of the political situation that the region currently faces and what might be done about it.