No sooner than the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Damascus – within 72 hours, in fact – the Syrian opposition figures based in Istanbul, Turkey, have claimed that up to 1400 people have been killed in chemical weapons attacks by the government forces on the outskirts of the Syrian capital on Wednesday morning.
The United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and the Arab League are among those who have demanded for urgent action.
Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government itself has strongly refuted the allegation calling it a "dirty" media war, which reflected the "hysteria, disorder and breakdown" of the rebels who have suffered a string of devastating military defeats in the recent days and weeks.
What is the game plan? One vital clue lies in the appointment of the Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom as the head of the UN team that landed in Damascus three days ago. Sellstrom served in the select band of UN weapon inspectors in Iraq…
Reuters quoted Sellstrom backing the demand that the alleged attacks in Damascus suburbs should be investigated and he even mooted a plan of action. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague picked up Sellstrom’s excellent idea and said, "I call on the Syrian government to allow immediate access to the area for the UN team currently investigating previous allegations of chemical weapons use".
France, Germany and Turkey agreed in no time. Interestingly, the White House in Washington has endorsed the European-Turkish demand: "There is today, as we speak, on the ground in Syria, a United Nations team with a specialty in investigating the use of chemical weapons. So, let’s give this team the opportunity to investigate what exactly occurred and get to the bottom of this so that we can hold accountable those who were responsible".
Indeed, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council has already taken place in New York. The council did not explicitly demand a UN investigation but agreed that there is "strong concern among the Council members" about the allegations, and "a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened" and that the "situation has to be followed carefully".
Meanwhile, Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesman told journalists in New York that Sellstrom is already "in discussions with the Syrian Government on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident".
In sum, the UN inspection team which is mandated to be in Syria up to 14 days – as agreed between the Syrian government and the UN – "with a possible extension" to probe the use of alleged use of chemical weapons at Khan al-Assal and two other undisclosed cites may just be getting an enhanced mandate.
If so, it becomes a diplomatic coup of sorts for the western powers and their Middle Eastern allies who have been persistently seeking some form of UN intervention in Syria.
In essence, Sellstrom may well be on an open-ended mission seeking out the chemical weapon stockpiles of the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Clearly, the camel has entered Bashar’s tent. Sellstrom will now begin filing reports to Ban, which the latter will be obliged to bring to the notice of the Security Council and that, in turn, could be mean the opening of a Syrian file in New York, which the West all along wanted.
What does it all add up to? Three things emerge. One, the momentum of stunning successes by the Syrian military over the rebels is almost certainly going to be punctuated. The Syrian regime will need to turn attention to the diplomatic battle that lies ahead. This is one thing.
Secondly, The tectonic plates in the geopolitics of the Middle East were beginning to show some movement in the recent weeks over the developments in Egypt. The disharmony amongst the erstwhile allies who were until recently collaborating over the Syria project was becoming too obvious to be papered over.
At the very least, the Syrian chemical weapon controversy puts a sudden break on the incipient moves of a "reset" in the political alignments in the Middle East. The western powers have circled the wagons and signalled to their restive regional allies that the Syrian project is work in progress.
Paradoxically, the chemical weapons controversy also provides a vital lifeline for Turkey’s beleaguered Recep Erdogan to break out of acute isolation over Egypt. Erdogan is at his wit’s end in coping with the Kurdish problem, which has been surging lately as the leitmotif of the Syrian conflict. The Syrian Kurds have frontally challenged Ankara’s covert nexus with the Al-Qaeda affiliates, which puts Erdogan in a tight spot.
Thirdly, a tantalizing question arises. The European powers – Britain and France in particular – and Turkey are evidently spearheading the latest controversy over chemical weapons. But how far and how real is the Obama administration’s involvement in it?
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey went on record as recently as on Monday that the Obama administration is opposed to even limited military intervention in Syria because it believes that the rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn’t support American interests if they were to seize power right now. He wrote with brutal frankness in a formal letter addressed to US Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat-New York), "Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.
"It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context… The use of US military force can change the military balance. But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fuelling this conflict".
Dempsey concluded that the Obama administration’s policy of focusing on humanitarian assistance and bolstering the moderate opposition in Syria "represents the best framework for an effective US strategy toward Syria".
All in all, therefore, the chemical weapons controversy opens an exit door of sorts for the western powers (and Turkey) in Syria. The western powers have been dodging the issue of arming the Syrian rebels after making verbal pledges while Assad’s forces have been gradually gaining the upper hand militarily.
The Syrian opposition is in a mess and the Brotherhood, which dominated the Syrian opposition, is under heavy Saudi artillery fire all across the region. In sum, the compass of the "regime change" project in Syria has shifted in favor of the Salafists. Besides, these are still early days in Egypt and what happens on the Nile banks would ultimately rewrite Middle Eastern politics.
In the present situation, Assad will negotiate from a position of unassailable strength at the "Geneva 2" negotiating table, which is untenable for the West.
This is where the chemical weapons controversy and the opening of a Syrian file at the UN Security Council offers a breather to break the momentum of Assad’s army and the swagger of the Hezbollah and Iran.
Is this a prelude to an Iraq-like scenario? No doubt, Sellstrom is tiptoeing dangerously close toward Bashar’s WMD stockpiles, something, which the US (and Israel) always wanted to fasten.
The only task assigned to weapon inspector Sellstrom when he landed in Damascus three days ago with his team was to inspect three specific sites to determine whether chemical weapons were used in Syria. He didn’t have a mandate even to name the party responsible. Now all that has become history.
Reprinted with permission.
Flickr/Mac Design Studio