On 21 August, hundreds - perhaps over a thousand - people were killed in a chemical weapon attack in Ghouta, Damascus, prompting the U.S., UK, Israel and France to raise the spectre of military strikes against Bashir al Assad's forces which, they say, carried out the attack.
To be sure, the latest episode is merely one more horrific event in a conflict that has increasingly taken on genocidal characteristics. The case for action at first glance is indisputable. The UN now confirms a death toll over 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom have been killed by Assad's troops. An estimated 4.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. International observers have overwhelmingly confirmed Assad's complicity in the preponderance of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Syrian people. The illegitimacy of his regime, and the legitimacy of the uprising against it, is clear.
But the interests of the west are a different matter.
While the U.S. and Israel have taken a lead in claiming firm evidence that the latest attack was indeed a deployment of chemical weapons by Assad's regime, justifying a military intervention of some sort, questions remain.
The main evidence cited by the U.S. linking the attacks to Syria are intercepted phone calls among other intelligence, the bulk of which was provided by Israel. "Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus," reported Foreign Policy, "an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people."
This account is hardly decisive proof of Assad's culpability in the attack - what one can reasonably determine here is that Syrian defense officials do not seem to have issued specific orders for such a strike, and were attempting to investigate whether their own chemical weapons unit was indeed responsible.
On the attack itself, experts are unanimous that the shocking footage of civilians, including children, suffering the effects of some sort of chemical attack, is real - but remain divided on whether it involved military-grade chemical weapons associated with Assad's arsenal, or were a more amateur concoction potentially linked to the rebels.
Many independent chemical weapons experts point out the insufficiency of evidence to draw any firm conclusions. Steven Johnson, chemical explosives experts at Cranfield Forensic Institute, pointed to inconsistencies in the video footage and the symptoms displayed by victims, raising questions about the nature of the agents used. Although trauma to the nervous system was clear: "At this stage everyone wants a ‘yes-no’ answer to chemical attack. But it is too early to draw a conclusion just from these videos."
Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps, said: "None of the people treating the casualties or photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear, and despite that, none of them seem to be harmed... there are none of the other signs you would expect to see in the aftermath of a chemical attack, such as intermediate levels of casualties, severe visual problems, vomiting and loss of bowel control."
Gwyn Winfield of chemical weapons journal CBRNe World said it was difficult to pin down a specific chemical from the symptoms seen in footage, but suggested it could be either a chemical weapon or a riot control agent: "The lack of conventional munition marks does suggest that it was a non-conventional munition, or an RCA (riot control agent) in a confined space, but who fired it and what it was has yet to be proved."
Other experts cited by Agence France Presse (AFP) concur with these assessments - either disagreeing that the footage proved military-grade chemical weapons, or noting the inadequacy of evidence implicating a specific perpetrator.
What little evidence is available in the public record on past deployment of chemical agents has implicated both Assad and the rebels - not the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as a whole, but rather militant jihadist factions linked to al-Qaeda and funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In March this year, a major attack on the predominantly Shi'a town of Khan al-Assal killing 26 people including civilians and Syrian soldiers was apparently committed by rebels "with al-Qaeda sympathies." U.S. weapons experts suspected that the victims were exposed to a "caustic" agent such as chlorine, not a military-grade chemical weapon but "an improvised chemical device." As the Telegraph reports: "There has been extensive experimentation by insurgents in Iraq in the use of chlorine."
Indeed, in May 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq had attempted a series of suicide attacks using bombs built from chlorine gas containers. Last year, Syrian jihadist groups led by the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusrah Front, linked to Iraqi al-Qaeda forces, captured several Syrian military bases stocking Scud and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as a chlorine factory near Aleppo.
Yet eyewitness reports from victims and doctors have also alleged many other instances of chemical weapons attacks attributed by locals to Syrian government forces.
Just three months before the most recent attack, however, former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, an independent UN war crimes investigator on Syria, told Channel 4 that evidence derived from interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals confirmed that rebels had used the nerve agent sarin:
"I have seen that there are concrete suspicions if not irrefutable proof that there has been use of sarin gas... This use was made by the opponent rebels and not from the governmental authorities."
According to Channel 4, "she had not found evidence of sarin's use by President Bashar al-Assad's regime."
Meanwhile, the latest UN report released in June 2013 confirms several allegations of chemical weapons attacks but concludes it:
"... has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator."
Further complicating the matter, Dave Gavlak, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Associated Press, cites interviews with "doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families" who believe that "certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the gas attack." The arms were reportedly given by al-Nusrah fighters to ordinary rebels without informing them of their nature. "More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government." Gavlak's report comes with the caveat that some of its information "cannot be independently verified."
Could it be disinformation planted by Assad agents in Damascus, as happened with the Houla massacre?
We will have to wait for the findings of UN weapons inspectors to see whether any further clarity can be added with regards to the latest attack. In the words of Foreign Policy magazine:
"Given that U.N. inspectors with a mandate to investigate chemical weapons use were on the ground when the attack happened, the decision to deploy what appears to have been a nerve agent in a suburb east of Damascus has puzzled many observers. Why would Syria do such a thing when it is fully aware that the mass use of chemical weapons is the one thing that might require the United States to take military action against it? That's a question U.S. intelligence analysts are puzzling over as well. 'We don't know exactly why it happened,' the intelligence official said. 'We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.'"
Imperial pretensions from Syria to Iran
U.S. agitation against Syria began long before today's atrocities at least seven years ago in the context of wider operations targeting Iranian influence across the Middle East.
In 2006, a little-known State Department committee - the Iran-Syria Policy and Operations Group - was meeting weekly to "coordinate actions such as curtailing Iran's access to credit and banking institutions, organizing the sale of military equipment to Iran's neighbors and supporting forces that oppose the two regimes." U.S. officials said "the dissolution of the group was simply a bureaucratic reorganization" because of a "widespread public perception that it was designed to enact regime change."
Despite the dissolution of the group, covert action continued. In May 2007, a presidential finding revealed that Bush had authorized "nonlethal" CIA operations against Iran. Anti-Syria operations were also in full swing around this time as part of this covert programme, according to Seymour Hersh, reporting for the New Yorker. A range of U.S. government and intelligence sources told him that the Bush administration had "cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations" intended to weaken the Shi'ite Hezbollah in Lebanon. "The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria," wrote Hersh, "a byproduct" of which is "the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups" hostile to the United States and "sympathetic to al-Qaeda." He noted that "the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria," with a view to pressure him to be "more conciliatory and open to negotiations" with Israel. One faction receiving covert U.S. "political and financial support" through the Saudis was the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
A year later, Alexander Cockburn revealed that a new finding authorized covert action undermining Iran "across a huge geographical are - from Lebanon to Afghanistan", and would include support for a wide range of terrorist and military groups such as Mujahedin-e-Khalq and Jundullah in Balochistan, including al-Qaeda linked groups:
"Other elements that will benefit from U.S. largesse and advice include Iranian Kurdish nationalists, as well the Ahwazi arabs of south west Iran. Further afield, operations against Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon will be stepped up, along with efforts to destabilize the Syrian regime."
It is perhaps not entirely surprising in this context that according to former French foreign minister Roland Dumas, Britain had planned covert action in Syria as early as 2009: "I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business", he told French television:
"I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate."
Leaked emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor included notes from a meeting with Pentagon officials confirming U.S.-UK covert operations in Syria since 2011:
"After a couple hours of talking, they said without saying that SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams (presumably from U.S., UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces... I kept pressing on the question of what these SOF teams would be working toward, and whether this would lead to an eventual air campaign to give a Syrian rebel group cover. They pretty quickly distanced themselves from that idea, saying that the idea 'hypothetically' is to commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within... They don’t believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Gaddafi move against Benghazi. They think the U.S. would have a high tolerance for killings as long as it doesn't reach that very public stage."
"Collapsing" Assad's regime is thus a final goal, though military intervention would only be politically feasible - read domestically palatable for western populations - in the context of "a massacre" so grievous it would lead to a public outcry.
In another email to Stratfor executive Fred Burton from James F. Smith, former director of Blackwater and current CEO of another private security firm SCG International, Smith confirmed that he was part of "a fact finding mission for Congress" being deployed to "engage Syrian opposition in Turkey (non-MB and non-Qatari)." The "true mission" for the "fact finding" team was how:
"... they can help in regime change."
The email added that Smith intended to offer "his services to help protect the opposition members, like he had underway in Libya." He also said that Booz Allen Hamilton - the same defence contractor that employed Edward Snowden to run NSA surveillance programmes - "is also working [with] the Agency on a similar request."
Grand strategy: shoring up Gulf oil autocracies, "salafi jihadism" and sectarian violence
So what is this unfolding strategy to undermine Syria, Iran and so on, all about? According to retired NATO Secretary General Wesley Clark, a memo from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense just a few weeks after 9/11 revealed plans to "attack and destroy the governments in 7 countries in five years." A Pentagon officer familiar with the memo told him, "we’re going to start with Iraq, and then we’re going to move to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran." In a subsequent interview, Clark argues that this strategy is fundamentally about control of the region's vast oil and gas resources.
As Glen Greenwald pointed out:
"... in the aftermath of military-caused regime change in Iraq and Libya... with concerted regime change efforts now underway aimed at Syria and Iran, with active and escalating proxy fighting in Somalia, with a modest military deployment to South Sudan, and the active use of drones in six - count ‘em: six - different Muslim countries, it is worth asking whether the neocon dream as laid out by Clark is dead or is being actively pursued and fulfilled, albeit with means more subtle and multilateral than full-on military invasions."
Indeed, much of the strategy currently at play in the region was candidly described in a 2008 U.S. Army-funded RAND report, Unfolding the Future of the Long War. The report noted that "the economies of the industrialized states will continue to rely heavily on oil, thus making it a strategically important resource." As most oil will be produced in the Middle East, the U.S. has "motive for maintaining stability in and good relations with Middle Eastern states." The report further acknowledges:
"The geographic area of proven oil reserves coincides with the power base of much of the Salafi-jihadist network. This creates a linkage between oil supplies and the long war that is not easily broken or simply characterized... For the foreseeable future, world oil production growth and total output will be dominated by Persian Gulf resources... The region will therefore remain a strategic priority, and this priority will interact strongly with that of prosecuting the long war."
In this context, the report identitied many potential trajectories for regional policy focused on protecting access to Gulf oil supplies, among which the following are most salient:
"Divide and Rule focuses on exploiting fault lines between the various Salafi-jihadist groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts. This strategy relies heavily on covert action, information operations (IO), unconventional warfare, and support to indigenous security forces... the United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch proxy IO campaigns to discredit the transnational jihadists in the eyes of the local populace... U.S. leaders could also choose to capitalize on the 'Sustained Shia-Sunni Conflict' trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world.... possibly supporting authoritative Sunni governments against a continuingly hostile Iran."
Exploring different scenarios for this trajectory, the report speculated that the U.S. may concentrate "on shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan as a way of containing Iranian power and influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf." Noting that this could actually empower al-Qaeda jihadists, the report concluded that doing so might work in western interests by focusing jihadi activity on internal sectarian rivalry rather than targeting the U.S., thus bogging down both Iranian-sponsored groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda affiliated networks in mutual conflict:
"One of the oddities of this long war trajectory is that it may actually reduce the al-Qaeda threat to U.S. interests in the short term. The upsurge in Shia identity and confidence seen here would certainly cause serious concern in the Salafi-jihadist community in the Muslim world, including the senior leadership of al-Qaeda. As a result, it is very likely that al-Qaeda might focus its efforts on targeting Iranian interests throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf while simultaneously cutting back on anti-American and anti-Western operations."
The RAND document contextualised this strategy with surprisingly prescient recognition of the increasing vulnerability of the U.S.'s key allies and enemies - Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Syria, Iran - to the converging crises of rapidly rising populations, a 'youth bulge', internal economic inequalities, political frustrations, sectarian tensions, and water shortages, all of which could destabilize these countries from within or exacerbate inter-state conflicts.
The report noted especially that Syria is among several "downstream countries that are becoming increasingly water scarce as their populations grow", increasing a risk of conflict. Drought in Syria due to climate change, impacting food prices, did indeed play a major role in sparking the 2011 uprisings. Though the RAND document fell far short of recognizing the prospect of an 'Arab Spring', it illustrates that three years before the 2011 uprisings, U.S. defense officials were alive to the region's growing instabilities, and concerned by the potential consequences for stability of Gulf oil.
These strategic concerns, motivated by fear of expanding Iranian influence, impacted Syria primarily in relation to pipeline geopolitics. In 2009 - the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning operations in Syria - Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter's North field, contiguous with Iran's South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets - albeit crucially bypassing Russia. Assad's rationale was "to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe's top supplier of natural gas."
Instead, the following year, Assad pursued negotiations for an alternative $10 billion pipeline plan with Iran, across Iraq to Syria, that would also potentially allow Iran to supply gas to Europe from its South Pars field shared with Qatar. the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project was signed by in July 2012 - just as Syria's civil war was spreading to Damascus and Aleppo - and earlier this year Iraq signed a framework agreement for construction of the gas pipelines. The pipeline would potentially allow Iran to supply gas to European markets.
The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline plan was a "direct slap in the face" to Qatar's plans. No wonder Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in a failed attempt to bribe Russia to switch sides, told President Vladmir Putin that "whatever regime comes after" Assad, it will be "completely" in Saudi Arabia's hands and will "not sign any agreement allowing any Gulf country to transport its gas across Syria to Europe and compete with Russian gas exports", according to diplomatic sources. When Putin refused, the Prince vowed military action.
Israel also has a direct interest in countering the Iran-brokered pipeline. In 2003, just a month after the commencement of the Iraq War, U.S. and Israeli government sources told The Guardian of plans to "build a pipeline to siphon oil from newly conquered Iraq to Israel" bypassing Syria. The basis for the plan, known as the Haifa project, goes back to a 1975 MoU signed by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "whereby the U.S. would guarantee Israel's oil reserves and energy supply in times of crisis." As late as 2007, U.S. and Israeli government officials were in discussion on costs and contingencies for the Iraq-Israel pipeline project.
All the parties intervening in Syria's escalating conflict - the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel on one side providing limited support to opposition forces, with Russia, China and Iran on the other shoring up Assad's regime - are doing so for their own narrow, competing geopolitical interests.
Certainly, external support for the rebels funneled largely through Saudi Arabia and Qatar has empowered extremists. The New York Times found that most of the arms supplied with U.S. approval "are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups" - a process which continues. The support for militants is steadily transforming the Syrian landscape. "Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists", reported NYT in April:
"Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government. Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of."
And there are even questions about the U.S.' purported disavowal of the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra. NYT reports that "Nusra’s hand is felt most strongly in Aleppo", where it has established in coordination with other rebel groups "a Shariah Commission" running "a police force and an Islamic court that hands down sentences that have included lashings." Nusra fighters also "control the power plant and distribute flour to keep the city’s bakeries running." Additionally, they "have seized government oil fields" in provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, and now make a "profit from the crude they produce."
The problem is that al-Nusra's bakery and oil operations are being supported by the U.S. and the European Union (EU) respectively. In one disturbing account, the Washington Post reports on a stealth mission in Aleppo "to deliver food and other aid to needy Syrians - all of it paid for by the U.S. government", including the supply of flour. "The bakery is fully supplied with flour paid for by the United States", the report continues, noting that local consumers, however, "credited Jabhat al-Nusra - a rebel group the United States has designated a terrorist organization because of its ties to al-Qaeda - with providing flour to the region, though he admitted he wasn’t sure where it comes from." Similarly, the EU's easing of an oil embargo to allow oil imports from rebel-controlled oil fields directly benefits al-Nusra fighters who control those former government fields.
No wonder Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in a failed attempt to bribe Russia to switch sides, told President Vladmir Putin that "whatever regime comes after" Assad, it will be "completely" in Saudi Arabia's hands and will "not sign any agreement allowing any Gulf country to transport its gas across Syria to Europe and compete with Russian gas exports", according to diplomatic sources. When Putin refused, the Prince vowed military action.
It would seem that contradictory Saudi and Qatari oil interests are pulling the strings of U.S. policy in Syria, if not the wider region. It is this - the problem of establishing a pliable opposition which the U.S. and its oil allies feel confident will play ball, pipeline-style, in a post-Assad Syria - that will determine the nature of any prospective intervention. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said:
"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."
What is beyond doubt is that Assad is a war criminal whose government deserves to be overthrown. The question is by whom, and for what interests?
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save it among other books. He writes for The Guardian on the geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises via his Earth insight blog.