Britain, France and Israel all believe the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has crossed President Barack Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against rebels in the country’s civil war. But the administration has yet to be unconvinced and, in any case, lacks realistic options, analysts suggest.
“If you look at the kind of options that are available to the United States to respond to chemical weapons use — especially, very small-scale use, battlefield use — they’re not very attractive,” said Gary Samore, President Obama’s former coordinator for weapons of mass destruction, counter-terrorism and arms control.
The administration is wise to take its time and examine the evidence, he told PRI. But physical evidence, especially samples from victims, will eventually force the issue, said Samore, who is currently the executive director at Harvard University’s Belfer Center:
Recent U.S. history, of going to war in Iraq to recover weapons of mass destruction where there were none, certainly complicates matters — though Obama administration officials insist their response isn’t influenced by that history at all. So far, chemical weapons use has been fairly limited, according to the nations who say they have evidence proving its use. But Samore says wide-scale use could be coming, as the civil war continues and the Assad government continues to be marginalized.
“Then, I think, there will be tremendous pressure on the United States and other countries to take action,” he said. “These are very difficult military operations because the Syrian chemical weapons program is so extensive. And it’s hard to think of a military scenario that would be effective without requiring a very large military intervention.”
Even in the event of more forceful Western intervention and resulting rebel gains, “Assad’s regime need not necessarily crumble immediately but may survive indefinitely as a frail statelet, supported as it is by Russian arms arriving via the Mediterranean and from Iran across the weakly governed Iraqi desert,” writes Robert Kaplan, Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, the geopolitical analysis firm.
That’s because of the growing discrepancy between peoples’ political allegiances and the polities formed by the region’s frail colonial-drafted borders, he suggests, which means that soon “the only states left that wield real sovereignty between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and Iranian plateau could be Israel and Iran.”
“The key to the maintenance of political stability for much of the Middle East’s history was the concept (associated with Ibn Khaldun) of the asabiyah, or solidarity group, often though not exclusively based on blood relations such as clans and tribes,” writes Kaplan:
Throughout the post-colonial age, periodic coups in Syria and Iraq signaled the replacement of one asabiyah with another, even if Khaldun’s formulation of the infusion of nomads no longer applied. What kept regime’s like Hafez al Assad’s and Saddam Hussein’s in power for so long was, in part, security technology — methods of torture and electronic surveillance — brought by the East Germans during the Cold War. Nowadays, a new evolution of technology — the Internet, cellphones and social media — has complicated the very concept of the asabiyah by creating mass public opinion. The asabiyah suggests exclusivity: a group more important than others, or more important than the society at large. But the mass society enabled and empowered by technology supersedes this.
Or does it? asks Kaplan, author of the bestselling new book The Revenge of Geography:
Democracy requires, after a fashion, its own asabiyahs or interest groups, which form the building blocks of political parties that, in turn, govern. But in an empowered mass society, with millions of sovereign voices, this requires a new and more sophisticated category of organization which traditional cultures have been largely unfamiliar with. …. To an extent, the Arab world, by doing away with asabiyahs that operated best inside the context of authoritarian societies, is starting history all over again.
Kaplan reiterates that democratization “only in a narrow sense means toppling dictators and holding elections,” echoing the conventional wisdom amongst democracy assistance practitioners and analysts:
What it really means is a level of development that allows for asabiyahs to compete on the basis of non-lethal categories: this economic tendency versus that one, rather than this ethnic or sectarian group — or this clan or tribe — versus that one. For the moment, it is the latter, more lethal categories that determine politics across much of the Levant: so that the combination of blood, belief and technology have given us a neo-medieval map that, rather than one of flourishing civilizations, is — in the cases of Syria and Iraq — one of clans, gangs and chaos