A Chemical Time-Bomb

04 Apr, 2013

Call it skill or call it an early Passover miracle, military considerations precipitated the historic snap decision to restore ties between Israel and Turkey during Obama’s trip to the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, self-admittedly persuaded by Obama, held the “crisis in Syria” as the “central consideration” behind his reconciliation with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in the fallout of a 2010 Israeli commando raid.

Simply put, the situation in Syria has gone from bad to worse in recent months, and Western leaders are under pressure to react. Indeed, Syria poses an acute threat not only to its neighbors in the region, but to NATO and its allies as a whole. This is due to the growing presence of Islamic extremist groups, such as Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s Al-Nusra Front, and the threat of unchecked chemical weapons. Ultimately, direct military intervention is only a matter of time, and the chances are it will make Libya look like a mere game.

Fighting in the Syrian civil war has produced a body count that far exceeds the rest of the Arab Spring combined. Lack of foreign support in such a violent struggle has divided and weakened the mainly secular rebels, creating a power vacuum that has made chemical weapons and Islamic fighters a credible threat.

What has happened in Syria has been the antithesis of what happened in the Libyan civil war, where NATO observers worked with the rebel National Transitional Council as the de facto government, maintaining a sense of order and stability. No such body exists among the opposition to the Assad regime. The most recent attempt, the Syrian National Council, is currently in shambles as its leader Moaz al-Khatib attempts to step down, frustrated by the lack of foreign aid.

On the other side, Russian and Chinese obstructionism in the UN Security Council has quashed the political will to make the visible and tangible gestures of support that the rebels so desperately need. The West’s absence is leaving a disastrous power vacuum on the ground, and the rebel allies have watched powerlessly as unsavory characters and chemical weapons fill its place. If these developments continue to progress, the West may ultimately have its hand forced if it wants to preserve some semblance of statehood peace in Syria.

Furthermore, while the motivations of the growing Islamic extremist faction in traditionally secular Syria are unclear, it is clear that they are well-armed and strong enough to both threaten other rebels and the rest of the region as a whole. Extremists, some of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, have helped make suicide bombings, beheadings, and mass killings the norm in Syria, and have gained access to a large part of foreign weapons shipments. With these shipments, the suspected Al-Qaeda affiliates can now play a dominant role in the fight, extorting and manipulating other groups as well as initiating skirmishes. It is therefore imperative that such developments are stopped early enough before chemical weapons are used or the region becomes a violence hotspot.

If large-scale weapons like those suspected of being held by the Assad government actually do exist, it will be paramount to take them out of the equation before they can be used against civilian populations or fall into the hands of those who might employ them outside of Syria. On this issue, the United States is especially worried; President Obama has talked of a “red line” and “contingency plans” in place if chemical weapons are used or even moved in Syria.

Troubling reports from the field suggest nerve gas attacks are now being resorted to by government forces, but so far the weapons and death tolls have been small. While these reports are yet to be independently substantiated, it is quite certain that Washington will soon be compelled to respond. A nerve gas attack on the scale reported means international sanctions; anything larger and there will be no choice but to go to war.

Time has failed to deliver the citizens of Syria any lasting peace or security. Facing a double threat of chemical weapons and Islamic extremists, Syria now poses too great a security risk to the United States and its allies.

Ultimately, Western nations will have to act if they want the failed state to be stabilized, or let Syria become the next Afghanistan – only this time, a lot closer to the tinderbox that is the Middle East and Europe. If the Syrian government’s rumored chemical weapons reserves do exist, a contingency plan will have to be enacted to prevent them from being used. Granted, any military operation in Syria will be unpopular and have major regional consequences, but unfortunately it appears a necessary evil given the present alternatives.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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