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Finding excuses

Interview: Ben KnightDecember 4, 2012

The US should intervene in Syria, if necessary with ground troops, argues Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East Program. At the moment, he told DW, the US has no policy toward Syria.

In this Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian soldier aims his rifle at free Syrian Army fighters during clashes in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, Syria. Syrian warplanes and artillery pummeled areas in and around Damascus, Aleppo and several other cities, on Sunday according to reports received by human rights activists. Intense fighting persists as rebels try to push their way back into the capital, where President Bashar Assad has his power base. (Foto:SANA/AP/dapd)
Krieg in SyrienImage: dapd

DW: How worried should we be that President Bashar Assad could use chemical weapons?

Nadim Shedadi: Syria is not a signatory to the chemical weapons convention, and the regime only admitted that it had chemical weapons in July 2012, when one of the military defectors admitted taking part in tests. That raised concern about Syria using chemical weapons, and triggered a reaction from the United States and the international community. But the wording of Syria's announcement - which said that these weapons could fall into "the hands of terrorists" - made it sound like a propaganda exercise. The statements from Damascus have been ambiguous - they said they would not use them against their own people, but which may imply that they would use them against an invading force - which is a threat against foreign intervention.

Why is (US Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton calling this a "red line" when Assad is killing so many people in Syria every day? What is so different about chemical weapons?

I think it's a bit clumsy of the US to say that - Syria should not be allowed to kill people in whatever way. Saying that chemical weapons are a red line almost implies that it's okay to kill as many people as you like as long as you don't use chemical weapons. This is generally part of the ambiguity of US policy toward Syria, which is a problem that all its allies are facing - there is a need for US leadership on Syria which is lacking.

Nadim Shehadi of think tank Chatham House. Copyright: Chatham House
Shehadi believes the US has no real policy on SyriaImage: Chatham House

Are Obama's warnings in fact a sign that the US is backing off, because he previously warned that there would be consequences if chemical weapons were moved? Now we know they are. Isn't he just re-drawing the "red line?"

The American declarations are not very clear. There were also reports of the United States preparing for intervention "in case" Assad falls, which almost indicates that the US is not worried about Assad staying in power, it's more worried about him falling - which gives the message that they would like him to stay. There's a kind of mind game being played with the Syrian regime, and the US is playing it rather badly.

Do you really think that the US wouldn't mind so much if Assad stays?

If you look at most of the US statements about Syria, they are more concerned about post-Assad than they are concerned about Assad staying. And this is probably inspired by their interpretation of the Iraq experience, which I think is the wrong interpretation. It's not when the dictator is removed that the country falls apart, it's what happens before. In Iraq after 1991, for example, the US allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre his own people and encouraged an insurgency, and then when there was an uprising they would not support it. Tens of thousands of people were killed. And the US did not react when Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds. It's not the act of removing the dictatorship that caused the collapse in Iraq, it's what happened before and the reaction of other regional powers.

We have a totally different situation now, because the regimes in the region were opposed to intervention in Iraq and after the fall of Saddam they all contributed to the mess there [Syria itself encouraged the insurgency against US forces in Iraq]. None of them had an interest in Iraq succeeding, whereas now most of the countries in the region would support US intervention, and would contribute toward stabilizing Syria after the fall.

Isn't one of the reasons that the US and NATO are being so cautious is because they don't want to provoke Russia? Isn't that holding the US back?

I think Russia is a convenient excuse for doing nothing. The US administration does not have a policy toward Syria.

But Russia is certainly involved isn't it? Russia has said it doesn't want a repeat of the Libya situation, doesn't want a no-fly zone, and has blocked UN resolutions condemning Assad. You don't think that plays a part in US policy?

That's a strong argument on the part of Russia, but allowing the Syrian regime to continue killing its own people without attempting to protect them is also a strong argument against Russia and for intervention.

The Syrian rebels have a simple plea - 'Give us weapons so we can defend ourselves.' Should we do that?

I think arming the rebellion is the second-best option. You can't leave people totally defenseless when they're being killed. But having an international action to protect them is a better option, because arming rebels creates a problem for after the fall of Assad. Whoever is armed now will have to be disarmed later, and it's much easier to remove an invading force than it is to disarm militias.

So if you were President Obama's advisor what would you tell him to do?

I would say the cost of intervention is far less than the cost of non-intervention. Intervention would have the support of the whole region and would re-establish US leadership, which is to the advantage of the US.

What do you mean by intervention?

A no-fly zone, protection of civilians. Not necessarily armed troops, but helping militarily with bombing and if necessary ground forces.

What about partitioning Syria as a temporary solution?

No, I don't think partition is a solution, either temporary or permanent. Think of the former Yugoslavia, which was partitioned because of the inability to conceive a consensus rising from people wanting to live together. And that caused the ethnic cleansing and the civil war. Syria is capable of emerging with an agreement where the different components of society can live together - after the regime falls. But this sort of arrangement will be much more difficult the longer the regime stays, because the massacres that the regime is carrying out are creating more sectarianism.

Nadim Shehadi is associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the UK think tank Chatham House.