Tuesday, December 04, 2012

4-Dec-12: Thinking about what Syria has become and what can be done

The BAS Doomsday Clock
Here, in the simplest, bluntest of bullet-point formats, is what the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in a report datelined March 1, 2012, wants the rest of us to know about the unresolved nightmare going on just north of our border, and how its effects can dramatically impact well outside Syria's borders.
  • Syria has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapons programs in the world and may also possess offensive biological weapons.
  • Longstanding terrorist groups and newly arrived Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters from Iraq have been active in Syria during that country's recent insurgency.
  • The United States and regional powers - including Saudi Arabia and Iran - need to start planning now to keep Syria's WMD out of terrorist hands if the Assad regime falls.
There's a long history to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Established in 1945 by scientists, engineers, and other experts who had created the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, "they knew about the horrible effects of these new weapons and devoted themselves to warning the public about the consequences of using them." They "reach policy leaders and audiences around the world with information and analysis about efforts to address the dangers and prevent catastrophe... [and] help educate the next generation." And they made famous the Doomsday Clock which they set at seven minutes to midnight back in 1947.

Lest all the nation-building action of the past week at the United Nations has distracted us, here are some salient aspects of what's happening on the ground north of Israel's border with Bashar al-Assad's regime today.
  • AP says a mortar attack on a school in the suburbs of Damascus today killed 29 students and a teacher. The report provides this context: "The bloodshed comes as Syrian forces fired artillery at rebel targets in and around the capital and the international community grew increasingly alarmed about the regime’s chemical weapons stocks."
  • A Turkish news source, Hurriyet Daily News, says the Bteiha school in Wafideen camp, 20 kilometres  from Damascus, came under attack, with 9 students killed. Wafideen houses some 25,000 Palestinian Arabs.
  • It appears Jihad Makdissi, who served as the public face of Syria's Foreign Ministry for the past two years and was regarded as al-Assad's premier mouthpiece, has evidently fled his homeland and defected.  
  • The UN is withdrawing its foreign staff (about 100 people) from Syria by the end of this week because of "deteriorating security conditions", according to the Christian Science Monitor, which also reported in the past couple of hours that a Damascus-bound commercial jet was forced to turn back because of gunfire in the vicinity of the airfield. AFP, quoting the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirms that raging battles are underway today (Tuesday) near the road that links Damascus to the international airport. The EgyptAir and Emirates airlines have discontinued all flights to Syria 'until further notice'.
  • Since the battles inside Syria began in March 2011, some 40,000 people have been killed. Forty thousand.
  • Keep that number in mind as we touch once again on the chemical weapons issue. A Reuters report ["NATO warns Syria not to use chemical weapons"] put out in the past hour (it's now 6:00 pm here in Jerusalem) says NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Bashar al-Assad, who presides over the ongoing Syrian massacre, today that "any use of chemical weapons in his fight against encroaching rebel forces would be met by an immediate international response". Reuters, as aware as we are that 40,000 lives have been snuffed out already, says "international concern over Syria's intentions has been heightened by reports that its chemical weapons have been moved and could be prepared for use." Rasmussen resorted to very angry words - very angry indeed. "The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community" he is quoted by Reuters as saying. "If anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community", he told reporters in Brussels.
Ah, yes. The international community.

Whom specifically does one imagine the NATO secretary-general means when he invokes "the whole international community"? Would that be the same "international community" that was said to have put Mahmoud Abbas "under intense pressure... to stop the growing lawlessness in Gaza, where rival militant groups are jockeying for power" back in 2005; shortly afterwards, the PA lost all semblance of control there, Hamas began arming itself with a vast arsenal of rockets, and southern Israel has yet to recover. Is it the "international community" to which "Cairo will have to answer... if there is evidence of an arms flow from Sinai into the Gaza Strip", as an over-optimistic 2005 Israeli analysis claimed? The arms flowed and continue to flow, and some prominent advocates (Boot, Stephens, others) of the 2005 disengagement now say they made a terrible mistake.

We suspect Bashar al-Assad and his advisers actually have a solid, practical, realistic and clear-eyed view of what the "international community" is capable of doing, and what it cannot or will not. That being so, is there any reason not to expect many more Syrian deaths in the days to come? Or worse?

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