It is a known fact that we are living dangerously in this region. The conflicts, wars and upheavals have left indelible marks on the region from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean and beyond. The past two weeks witnessed sabre-rattling by North Korea and earthquakes in Iran that caused much fear in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The GCC was prompted to issue a rare statement about its concerns over the possible radiation leak from Iran’s nuclear plant at Bushehr.
There has been no respite. After the Israeli, British and French claims of the deployment of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against the rebels and its own people, the US finally came around to admitting it. Now there is mounting evidence that the thuggish regime of President Bashar Al Assad has used chemical weapons on a small scale in the two-year bloody civil war threatening to spill over to Syria’s neighbours.
In a letter to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, the White House has admitted for the first time that “the assessment about the use of chemical weapons [by the Syrian regime] was made “with varying degrees of confidence” and that they had been deployed on a “small scale”. The US claims that “evidence taken from sites in Syria and from potential victims indicated that Al Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against the opposition, including sarin, an extremely powerful nerve agent”.
As the Financial Times succinctly put it, “Mr. Obama has made it clear on a number of occasions that the use of chemical weapons would be a ‘red line’ and a ‘game changer’ for the US. “That would change my calculus, that would change my equation,” Obama warned last August and repeated the same warning during his visit last month to occupied Jerusalem and Amman. Qatar has also joined the countries that have been accusing the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people — deadly poisonous gas in violation of international norms.
Qatari Foreign Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani, in a speech at the Brookings Center in Washington, was quoted as saying that “Chemicals? He [Al Assad] used chemicals, and there is evidence,” [and the Syrian ruler’s strategy as an attempt to] “test your reactions” and incrementally cross US President Barack Obama’s “red lines”.
Clearly, Syria is becoming a major headache for Obama, who since the start of the Syrian revolution, has shied away from playing a leading role in dealing with it. Initially, the Obama administration did not want to get distracted from the re-election campaign or get involved in the Syrian debacle which was against Obama’s emerging doctrine of ‘leading from behind’. Now, after US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel reversed course and admitted that “the US intelligence community … determining with “varying degrees of confidence” that Al Assad’s forces have used the nerve agent sarin against civilians and forces fighting to remove Al Assad from power. Furthermore, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s admission that Al Assad has used chemical weapons twice will add to the pressure to deal forcefully with the Syrian president.
On top of that, the Republicans led by the maverick senator John McCain are piling the pressure on Obama. McCain has taken the lead in calling for a more robust US position on Syria. He has been an outspoken critic of America’s laidback position vis-a-vis Syria, and has been pushing for arming the opposition and establishing a no-fly zone regardless of Russia’s opposition.
Obama’s refusal to go along with then secretary of state Hillary Clinton and senior advisers in the US administration to arm the Syrian opposition last year could prove a costly mistake. Since then, hardliners led by Islamist rebel fighters, especially Jabhat Al Nusra, which the US has listed as a terrorist organisation, has taken the lead in fighting Al Assad’s forces. More precariously, the security and safety of Al Assad’s chemical weapons’ arsenal, which looms large today after deployment of sarin, is a major threat.
The spillover of the Syrian civil war to neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon, where a declaration for jihad has been called to fight Hezbollah rebels aiding Al Assad’s forces against Sunni villages. This is an ominous development, which could turn the whole region into a powder keg. Moreover, the warning by another US senator that the Syrian civil war, if not contained could destabilise Jordan, could be another game changer in the region.
Obviously, the lack of resolve by the Obama administration and the international community to take a strong position on Syria is allowing Al Assad to keep testing the US resolve and cross the ‘red lines’ set by Obama. This poses a major challenge to the credibility of the US and emboldens Al Assad. The onus is on the US and its allies to show unwavering resolve in dealing with Al Assad, who is being sheltered and aided by the Russians and Iranians.
The question is now what kind of game-changer Al Assad, his backers, foes and more importantly, his people are to expect. It is no time for appeasement in this high stakes and dangerous game. It is time to hold the Syrian president accountable for all the crimes against humanity he has committed. This is not the time to hesitate since the region is inching towards more instability and divisions.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the political science department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji