Thursday, August 22, 2013

Images of Death in Syria, but No Proof of Chemical Attack

This has just come in from Conflicts Forum:

A number of reports and commentaries on the issues of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria — with numbers of casualties (all based on claims by various Syrian opposition sources – including 'activists') varying from 130 to 1,400  the first piece below from the NY Times notes that the allegations are based on amateur video and youtube postings:

"The attack was especially conspicuous given the presence in Damascus of a team sent by the United Nations to investigate chemical strikes reportedly waged earlier in the war … 
The actual death toll remained unclear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said late Wednesday that more than 130 people had been confirmed dead in attacks around Damascus, though it could not confirm the use of gas. Other opposition estimates put the death toll at more than 1,000 …
The videos, experts said, also did not prove the use of chemical weapons, which interfere with the nervous system and can cause defecation, vomiting, intense salivation and tremors. Only some of those symptoms were visible in some patients.
Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that covers unconventional weapons, said that the medics would most likely have been sickened by exposure to so many people dosed with chemical weapons — a phenomenon not seen in the videos. He said that the victims could have been killed by tear gas used in a confined space, or by a diluted form of a more powerful chemical agent.

Nevertheless, the Israeli press has taken up the incident in full force – citing unverified casualties of 1,300 people — see below. As Conflicts Forum has pointed out previously, the commentaries from leading Israeli commentators below on the alleged attack in Syria, the politics of US 'red lines' on Syria, and the lack of action by the US, need to be read less for their relevance towards Syria, and much more so for their significance for Israeli policy on Iran, and US 'red lines' on the Iranian nuclear issue.


Images of Death in Syria, but No Proof of Chemical Attack

BEN HUBBARD and HWAIDA SAAD, New York Times, 22 August 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Scores of men, women and children were killed outside Damascus on Wednesday in an attack marked by the telltale signs of chemical weapons: row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.
But even with videos, witness accounts and testimonies by emergency medics, it was impossible to say for certain how many people had been killed and what exactly had killed them. The rebels blamed the government, the government denied involvement and Russia accused the rebels of staging the attack to implicate President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Images of death and chaos poured out of Syria after what may be the single deadliest attack in more than two years of civil war. Videos posted online showed dozens of lifeless bodies, men wrapped in burial shrouds and children, some still in diapers. There were hospital scenes of corpses and the stricken sprawled on gurneys and tile floors as medics struggled to resuscitate them.
Getting to the bottom of the assault could well alter the course of the conflict and affect the level of the West’s involvement.
President Obama said almost exactly a year ago that the use of chemical weapons was a red line. But the subsequent conclusion by the White House that the Syrian Army had used chemical weapons did not bring about a marked shift in American engagement.
This latest attack, by far the largest chemical strike yet alleged, could tip that balance — as many foes of Mr. Assad hope it will.
But like so much in Syria, where the government bars most reporters from working and the opposition heavily filters the information it lets out, the truth remains elusive.
The attack was especially conspicuous given the presence in Damascus of a team sent by the United Nations to investigate chemical strikes reportedly waged earlier in the war. The United States, the European Union and other world powers called for the investigators to visit the site of Wednesday’s attack.

The Security Council, meeting in emergency session, issued a statement calling for a prompt investigation of the allegations and a cease-fire in the conflict, but took no further action.
“I can say that there is a strong concern among 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,” said María Cristina Perceval of Argentina, the president of the Council, after the meeting. “All Council members agreed that any use of chemical weapons, by any side under any circumstances, is a violation of international law.”
The ranking diplomat from Britain, Philip Parham, told reporters later outside the Security Council chambers that representatives of at least 35 countries had signed a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requesting that Syrian authorities grant the United Nations investigative panel in Syria “urgent access” to the attack site.
But Mr. Parham declined to specify the signatories or to divulge whether any of the 15 Security Council members had proposed any stronger measures during their closed-door consultations.
In the opposition’s account of the deadly events, Mr. Assad’s forces deployed poison gas on a number of rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus, the capital. They described medics finding people dead in their homes.
Videos posted online showed mostly men and children, but the opposition activists said that many women were killed too, but that out of respect they were not photographed.
The actual death toll remained unclear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said late Wednesday that more than 130 people had been confirmed dead in attacks around Damascus, though it could not confirm the use of gas. Other opposition estimates put the death toll at more than 1,000.
“I saw many children lying on beds as if they were sleeping, but unfortunately they were dead,” said an activist reached via Skype in the suburb of Erbin, who gave his name as Abu Yassin.
“We thought this regime would not use chemical weapons, at least these days with the presence of the U.N. inspectors,” he said. “It is reckless. The regime is saying, ‘I don’t care.’ ”
Others said that field hospitals were overwhelmed with the number of patients and that many ran out of medication. An activist who gave only his first name, Mohammed, said the dead in one suburb, Zamalka, were laid out in front of a mosque, where a voice over loudspeakers called on residents to identify their relatives.

The video record posted online did not provide enough detail to draw a complete picture of what happened. Unlike the videos often uploaded by the opposition, the images on Wednesday did not show the immediate aftermath of the attacks in the communities.
The videos, experts said, also did not prove the use of chemical weapons, which interfere with the nervous system and can cause defecation, vomiting, intense salivation and tremors. Only some of those symptoms were visible in some patients.
Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that covers unconventional weapons, said that the medics would most likely have been sickened by exposure to so many people dosed with chemical weapons — a phenomenon not seen in the videos. He said that the victims could have been killed by tear gas used in a confined space, or by a diluted form of a more powerful chemical agent. Others suggested that toxic industrial chemicals might have been used.
Some witness testimony suggested that residents, used to seeking cover from government shelling and airstrikes by running into underground shelters, had made the situation worse. In one video, a young medic said that residents had hidden in their basements, where the gas collected and suffocated them.
“The descent of the citizens into the basements increased the number of wounded and the number of martyrs,” the medic said, before breaking into tears and adding that many from the medical corps also succumbed to the gases.

It was not clear whether the team sent to Syria by the United Nations would be able to investigate the new reported attacks. The team arrived Sunday after months of negotiations with the Syrian government and is authorized to visit only three predetermined sites.
The White House said that Syria should provide access to the United Nations, and that those found to have used chemical weapons should be held accountable. Other countries, including Britain and France, offered similar expressions of concern.
Russia wrote off the attack as a “preplanned provocation” orchestrated by the rebels and said they had launched the gas with a homemade rocket from an area they controlled.
“All of this looks like an attempt at all costs to create a pretext for demanding that the U.N. Security Council side with opponents of the regime and undermine the chances of convening the Geneva conference,” said the statement, issued by Aleksandr Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. He also called for a “professional and fair investigation.”

At least one photograph posted on Facebook by an activist showed what looked like a makeshift rocket. But loyalist militias and Hezbollah have both fired makeshift rockets at rebel positions in this war, and could presumably be suspects for any attacks with improvised rockets on rebel-controlled neighborhoods.
The Syrian Army, in a statement read on state television, denied having used chemical weapons, calling the accusations part of a “filthy media war” in favor of the rebels. The claims “are nothing but a desperate effort to cover their defeat on the ground, and reflect the state of hysteria, confusion and collapse of these gangs and those who support them,” the statement said.
Louay Mekdad, a media coordinator for the military wing of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the attack showed that Mr. Assad “doesn’t care any longer about red lines since he has already exceeded too many of them while the world has showed no reaction.”
Mr. Mekdad called on the Security Council and international powers to “live up to their moral and historic responsibility” to protect civilians in Syria. “If the international community doesn’t move now, when is it going to move?” he asked.


1,300 DEAD IN CHEMICAL ATTACK BY ASSAD’S ARMY
Adi Hashmonai and Assaf Gabor, Ma'ariv, 22 August 2013
Horrific photographs and video footage showing children covered in white sheets with foam coming out of their mouths were circulated yesterday by rebel forces in Syria. The rebels claimed that more than 1,300 civilians, many of whom were women and children, were killed in a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian army on concentrations of civilians in Damascus and its environs. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said yesterday, “Chemical weapons were used yesterday by the regime—and not for the first time.” The assessment is that the lethal gas Sarin was used.
“Starting around 3:00 in the morning and up until now our forces have counted more than 1,000 bodies, most of which were of children under the age of six,” said yesterday afternoon in a special conversation with Ma’ariv the chairman of the union of rebels in Syria, whose nom de guerre is Abu Adnan. Abu Adnan, who was choking back tears, was describing the largest chemical weapons attack to have been committed in that war-torn country since the beginning of the bloody civil war some two and a half years ago.
Abu Adnan said, “At 3:00 in the morning, when innocent civilians were sleeping their night sleep, planes from Assad’s army came and began to drop chemical weapons mercilessly. And all of that happened while UN inspectors who had come to see whether Assad and his men were using chemical weapons were in the country.” Rebel spokesman Loay Maqdad reported that the Syrian army’s chemical attack was carried out on ten different sites on the outskirts of Damascus, noting that between 100 and 150 casualties were counted at each such site.
The Assad regime denied the allegations outright. A televised statement noted, “neither the reports nor the images that were disseminated to the media have any truthful basis.”
At the time of the chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus, Abu Adnan was in a refugee camp along with his family in Turkey. His home in one of the suburbs of Homs was bombed and destroyed nine months ago, and ever since then he, his wife and their five children have been living as refugees. […]
Mandi Safdi, formerly the director of former deputy minister Ayoub Kara’s office, currently serves as a mediator between the rebel forces and political officials in Israel. Safdi said that there were some 500 opposition movements to the Assad regime in Syria. The union of rebels was formed a number of months ago in hope of finding ways of bridging the gaps between them and to unite so as to bring about an end to the civil war.
“I am calling on Israel and the United States—help us stop the crimes and the massacres that Assad is committing,” said Abu Adnan. “Iran is helping him now commit these chemical attacks, and Hizbullah is with him too. Look the Syrian people in the eye. We only need freedom, like all people in the world. We want peace, and this is an historic opportunity to achieve a peace agreement.”
Abu Adnan said that he and his fellow rebels did not expect Israel to intervene in the warfare in Syria, but he did say, “We are counting on it and the United States that they know exactly what creative means can be used to help us overcome Assad. We believe that they know the regime’s weak spots and we expect [high] quality Israeli bombardments in the near future, like it did to Assad’s weapons stores in Kasion and Latakia. Any delay by Israel and the United States will only strengthen the radical Islamic forces.”
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon commented on the situation in Syria, and said, “the Syrian regime has lost control of the country.” He said, “For a long time we haven’t been talking about a local Syrian conflict but a conflict that has become global, when one axis receives the support of Russia, whereas the other axis receives the support of the United States and Europe. We cannot see the end of this situation, when even Assad’s fall [from power] wouldn’t bring about its end because there are so many unsettled bloody scores there among the various factions.”

AMERICA’S WEAKNESS: DISGRACE FOR THE UNITED STATES
Amir Rapaport, Ma'ariv, 22 August 2013
The gas attack is not only a war crime of the Syrian regime, it is also a huge disgrace for the United States. Here are the facts: President Barack Obama drew a “red line” and declared that his country would not accept the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s army. Assad’s army thumbed their noses. In the beginning, the use of chemical weapons was to a small extent: a few missiles fitted with chemical warheads were fired, and when American spokespersons were asked about the issue, they argued that there was no evidence for the use of chemical weapons. In contrast, the fact that Assad’s army does indeed use chemical weapons was revealed months ago by IDF Intelligence Research Department Director Brig. Gen. Itai Virov, in a lecture at a conference in Tel Aviv; the Americans then began giving excuses for why they weren’t even taking steps to enforce a no fly zone over Syria in response, citing the Russian anti-aircraft missile system as the main impediment—and this from the generals of the world’s strongest superpower.
The results of that weakness were clearly shown in the horrific images taken yesterday on the outskirts of Damascus: this time, Assad’s army fired the chemical weapons by means of rockets at three different Sunni rebel strongholds. It wasn’t the act of a command “gone mad,” but rather a conscious decision on the part of the Syrian president to make chemical weapons an inseparable part of his arsenal. He has a good reason: it’s already been proven that the US’s red lines are more than just flexible—they’re jokes.
The punch line is that just last week, the UN decided to send a delegation to search for evidence of the use of chemical weapons all across Syria, “in coordination with the regime.” It is clear to everyone that the regime will take the delegation to sites where there are absolutely no traces of the use of chemical weapons—not to the neighborhoods attacked yesterday.  And what about the United States? Its spokespersons will bend over backwards to explain the US’s total lack of response to the use of Sarin gas.
The truth is that the US is intimidated by Russia, which recognizes America’s weakness and wishes to evoke the days when it was a world superpower. The Russians threaten that if the US and Europe act to enforce a no fly zone over Syria, or become involved in any other prominent way in the fighting, they will provide Assad with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. In contrast to the US, Russia shows that it supports its allies all the way—even when their cause is all but lost, as in the case of Bashar Assad.
The problem is that America’s weakness places us in dire straits. The deterioration in the US’s standing began to pick up speed back in early 2011, when Obama betrayed (in the Arabs’ eyes) the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Now too, Egyptian generals are outraged that the US is not giving them full support in their fight against the attacks of the Muslim Brotherhood and countless al-Qaida elements.
And the more the United States wallows in its internal debates and economic problems, the more its credit dissipates in the eyes of the major players in the region and the world. Israel, which has pinned all its hopes on the might of the American empire, will yet pay dearly for this weakness.

AMERICAN INTERESTS: WHY? BECAUSE HE CAN
Alex Fishman, Yedioth Ahronoth, 22 August 2013
There is no chance of the horrific footage in Syria changing American or European policy towards the bloody struggle. Syria’s tragedy is that it is not a sufficiently important country insofar as concerns Western interests.
As long as the Americans’ interests in the area are not affected—to wit, as long as the crisis fails to undermine the stability of Jordan and fails to threaten the United States’ allies, Israel and Turkey—the Syrians can continue to slaughter one another without hindrance. The American forces are deployed in Jordan and are prepared for a conflagration involving chemical warfare. Why in Jordan? Because that country is important to the United States, whereas Syria is not.
A diplomatic gaffe was recorded a number of months ago. Obama said that any movement of chemical weapons and any use of chemical weapons in Syria would be construed as the crossing of a red line, and the world understood that he intended to use American military force. The president’s men paled: no decision had ever been made in Washington either to use force in Syria or about any red lines. Ever since then, American foreign policy [makers] have done everything possible to back down from the lofty position the president voiced. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey publicly explained the limits on the use of force in Syria, and demonstrated that the real policy is that in no scenario would there be military intervention.
The horrific images of poisoned children are going to force the administration to respond, but not to respond in a way that will draw them into another armed conflict in the Middle East. The American generals might raise the idea of enforcing no-fly zones in Syria, but the top tiers of the security establishment know—thanks to war game simulations that were carried out—that any attempt to enforce that will force the US to have boots on the ground in Syria—and that is something they’re not prepared to consider.
Did the possibility of increasing military aid to the rebel forces in Syria come up during Dempsey’s visit to Israel last week? Top Israeli security officials responded with a bitter smile to that question yesterday, saying: there is no chance of changing the mind of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The pace at which the wheels of bureaucracy turn will also have an impact on the American response. When the Americans are told about an attack with chemical weapons they collect information, analyze it, examine the credibility of the source and hold a number of meetings. Only after that entire process has been completed are recommendations submitted to the top tiers of the American security establishment. It took eight months for that process to be completed before a decision to start the first Gulf War was made. The 1,400 dead [in Syria] aren’t going to rattle the principles of American organizational culture. The Russians, in the meantime, haven’t stopped supplying the Syrian army with weapons in a way that will impede any attempt by a Western country to apply aerial pressure on Syria.
The Syrian army uses chemical weapons against Syrian civilians because it can, and because it has the support of Russia and Iran. While chemical weapons aren’t its first choice, it uses them when it feels that its back is against the wall. And that is the lesson that the world needs to learn from the turn of events yesterday. There is no crime and punishment, countries do not go to war for humanitarian purposes, and the only thing that counts are their cold interests.

THE SILENCE OF THE WHITE SHEETS
Eitan Haber, Yedioth Ahronoth, 22 August 2013
It’s often said that if during World War II the mass media had been as developed as it is today, some of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people and the world as a whole would have been averted. And yet, nearly an entire day has passed since the pictures began to flow out of Syria showing bodies wrapped in white sheets, and Natan Alterman’s poem, “Of All Nations” comes to mind: “Their eyes speak: Turn away your face Mother, from the long lines that have been laid down.”
The world wasn’t startled last night, it wasn’t shocked, it did nothing. The president of the United States said long ago that his army would not remain silent if the Syrians were to use chemical weapons, and there were European heads of state who spoke in lofty terms about the need for a military response if the president of Syria were to order the use of gas, but in the meantime the reports out of Syria talk about 1,400 dead, and the world sees the horrors, hears the cries of the victims and their families, and is silent.
The bodies wrapped in white sheets and the mosques that are filled with the injured on the outskirts of Damascus don’t trouble the world too much. The world is withdrawing into itself more and more and attends only to its own affairs. At this point in time the world is averting its gaze from the bodies wrapped in white sheets and the lethal use of gas. Syrian President Bashar Assad is making a fool of the entire world, while the families of his victims cry bitterly.
It is incumbent upon us in Israel to learn the sad lesson of the Syrian story. The world was silent back then, during World War II, and the world will also be silent even if a new doom is upon our doorstep. We are alone. The decisions need to be made by the isolated Israeli government, and preventing disaster from striking will also lie on the shoulders of an Israel that is surrounded by enemies, and abandoned more and more by its friends. We are alone. It is important that we learn the operational and ethical implications, so that we never have to add another two lines to Alterman’s poem, “And you will save us from the murderers and those who were silent.”


Footfalls echo in Syria's rose-garden

By M K Bhadrakumar, Asia Times, 22 August 2013

The coincidence couldn't be more telling. 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 1,400 people have been killed in chemical weapons attacks by the government forces on the outskirts of the Syrian capital on Wednesday morning. The media blitzkrieg has been equally stunning - press conferences, video presentations by opposition activists, "expert opinion" from Western capitals and instantaneous reactions by western politicians. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and the Arab League are among those who have demanded for urgent action. The UN Security Council promptly held a closed-door meeting to consider the allegation against the Syrian government. 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. 

Shedding full light 
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. Sellstrom suggested,
It [Syrian opposition claim] sounds like something that should be looked into. It will depend on whether any UN member state goes to the secretary general and says we should look at this event. We are in place.
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 ... The UK will be raising this incident at the UN Security Council.
France concurred within no time. President Francois Hollande too felt that the allegations "require verification and confirmation" and Paris would ask the UN to go to the site "to shed full light" on the allegations. Germany nodded in agreement. The Turkish foreign ministry had a full-fledged statement ready, which said Ankara is "deeply concerned" and the team of UN inspectors already in Syria "must investigate the allegations in question and present its findings" to the security council. 
Interestingly, the much-awaited statement by the White House in Washington turned out to be an endorsement of the European-Turkish demand - stopping short of confirming the incident but adding it was working to gather additional information, while demanding,
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 taken place in New York. The council did not explicitly demand a UN investigation but agreed that "clarity" was needed and welcomed UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon's calls for a prompt investigation by Sellstrom's team. In the words of Ambassador Cristina Perceval of Argentina, currently president of the Security Council, 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'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''. 

Camel in Bashar's tent
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 now since the Syrian opposition will endeavor to make fresh allegations in other places in Syria as well. Most important, Sellstrom may tiptoe at some stage toward 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 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. The government forces have won successes in key battlefields such as in the central and coastal regions of Homs and Latakia and the suburbs of Damascus. General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the influential military aide to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, claimed only Wednesday in Tehran that the "[Syrian] terrorists have been almost defeated from the military perspective." Savafi added,
What is left is the Geneva 2 conference. On one side there will be the US, Israel, France, England, Turkey and some Arab states, which supported the opposition. As a result of its domestic issues, Turkey has now realized its strategic mistake and left the front. Saudi Arabia is dealing with its Egypt project. The rest of the front is present but defeated. 
But on the other side of this front, there reside Russia, China and Iran, which aided Syria. Of course, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah aided Syria politically and internationally as they support restoration of peace, stability and tranquility to Syria.
Did Safavi speak one day too soon? Is Iran fully in the loop? Is its triumphalism warranted? The answers will unfold soon. 
Meanwhile, Moscow is maintaining deafening silence over the latest allegations on chemical weapons, presumably taken aback by the lightning speed with which the Western powers and their regional allies got the Syrian file into the agenda of the Security Council. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov had a telephone conversation on Wednesday morning with the Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud to "discuss the situation in Egypt and Syria ... [and] the relations between the two countries''. Bandar is a delightful bag of tricks, and at any rate, by Wednesday evening, Riyadh sang a different tune, with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal saying,
The UN Security Council should work out a clear resolution to put an end to the tragedy. We are shocked by the massacre in Syrian cities with the use of chemical weapons, which are prohibited under international law.
This is the second thing. The tectonic plates in the geopolitics of the Middle East were beginning to show some movement in recent weeks over 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. 
Turkey began openly criticizing the Egyptian junta and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) supporters and taunting the West over its much-vaunted democracy project in the new Middle East. Qatar vanished from the Syrian frontline. Washington still wouldn't call the Egyptian coup by its real name, while the European Union is dithering on imposing any embargo on Egypt, with Saudi Arabia threatening to make up for any Western embargo on Egypt. 

Stalling a reset 
But the most sensational part of the realignment is the nascent proximity between Russia on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies (especially the United Arab Emirates) on the other hand in their shared antipathy toward Muslim Brotherhood. 
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 their restive Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, in particular - are being told to stay put, with the signal that the Syrian project is work in progress. 
The heart of the matter is that the West simply cannot afford a regional ascendance by Russia, China and Iran. Nor is the West comfortable with the increasingly maverick ways in which its regional allies are behaving. 
Paradoxically, the chemical weapons controversy 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 operating in northeastern Syria bordering Turkey, which puts Erdogan in a tight spot. 
A tantalizing question, however, 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, General Martin Dempsey, went on record as recently as 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 fueling this conflict.
Dempsey concluded that the Obama administration is on course with its current policy of focusing on humanitarian assistance and bolstering the moderate opposition in Syria, since such an approach "represents the best framework for an effective US strategy toward Syria''." 

A perpetual possibility 
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 Egypt's strongman General Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi told its leaders who were based in Cairo to get lost. On the other hand, 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. 

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 and end the look of smug satisfaction on the Russian face. 
Is this a prelude to an Iraq-like scenario? The chancelleries in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing will be assessing. 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 is history. The plain truth is that Sellstrom's footfalls are beginning to echo in the memory. One could visualize Sellstrom going down the passage towards the door "we never opened into the rose-garden''. 


Maybe, as T. S. Eliot wrote,
"But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know."
But we know that what was an abstraction until the dawn broke on Wednesday is becoming a perpetual possibility in today's world of speculation. 
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). 

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