THE BLOG

Time for President Obama to Act to Deter the Syrian Regime?

27/08/2013 11:30 BST | Updated 23/10/2013 10:12 BST

According to Syrian opposition sources, more than 1,300 Syrian citizens have been killed in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Wednesday 21 August.

The Syrian National Coalition claims toxic gas was used by President Bashar al Assad's forces during a bombardment of rebel-held areas outside the Syrian capital.

It described the attack as a fatal blow that kills all hopes for a political solution in Syria". Some opposition figures are calling for the boycott of the proposed Geneva 2 conference scheduled for October. "Any one attending is a traitor", an opposition figure said.

As usual the regime denies any responsibility and accuses the opposition of launching the attack to discredit the Syrian regime. On Thursday 22nd August the "US State Department said that if proven, the attack would represent an "outrageous and flagrant escalation" of the use of chemical weapons in Syria's two year civil war".

Meanwhile Mr Obama's much damaged credibility is facing a hammering. He is reportedly under pressure to act against Mr Assad's government in the wake of Wednesday's alleged gas attacks.

In the Middle East I know so well, President Obama's threats and condemnations are no longer taken seriously. It is doubtful whether he will take any action now.

On Thursday, Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, formally asked Syria to allow UN experts to "swiftly investigate the incident. The UN inspectors are already on a mission in Syria.

Mr Ban ki-Moon was expecting a "positive response" from Mr Assad's regime "without delay", said a UN spokesman. The problem is Ban ki-Moon's words will fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately Mr. Ban ki-Moon is perceived in the Middle East as a thoroughly nice man, but lacking clout and charisma. Ban ki-Moon's assertion that "Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator," will not deter Assad. He has heard this many times before.

When Ban ki-Moon speaks no one listens and when Obama speaks no one believes him. The UN has been rendered powerless by the Russian Vetoes and Obama has been rendered impotent by his own indecisiveness and lack of a coherent strategy. In blunt terms Obama's Middle East policy has abysmally failed.

A New York Times editorial Friday 23rd August reminded us that President Obama's credibility is on the line. Since August 2012 the President spoke of red lines. But Obama's words have no weight if not followed by strong action. On May 5th The Washington Post reported that John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that President Obama's "red line" on Syria was written in "disappearing ink."

The USA has even failed to deliver the promised weapons to the opposition. This cautious approach has encouraged Assad to escalate and kill thousands of Syrians in the full knowledge that he is getting full backing from Russia and China and the US Administration is dithering and desperate to find an escape route in the form of Geneva 2 and so on.

General Martin E Dempsey's warning of the risks and costs has given the Damascus regime further encouragement to carry on with its murderous campaign regardless.

The point is we don't hear much discussion let alone condemnation when thousands are killed by conventional weapons. Bashar al Assad can carry on killing his own people aided by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia and no one will stop him as long as he doesn't use chemicals and gases and there shall be no consequences. But if he does then Ban ki-Moon and Obama will be angry and issue verbal threats that lack credibility and will not deter Assad and his backers.

In August last year US President Barack Obama had made it clear that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would represent "a red line" - though he subsequently backed away from this as a firm commitment to take military action. On April 26th Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is a "game-changer". According to press reports the red-line has already been crossed several times before the latest outrage last Wednesday.

On Monday June 3rd, the U.N. panel charged with investigating Syria's hostilities issued a report in Geneva, indicating that there was evidence that "limited quantities of toxic chemicals" had been used in March and April, twice in Aleppo, once in Damascus, and once in Idlib. White House officials said on Tuesday June 4th that the Obama Administration is seeking stronger evidence.

A BBC report said on 5th June "there is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime used - and continues to use - chemical weapons" in Syria".

The shameful silence of the world and particularly of the US administration has enabled the regime to disregard all political solutions and to stick with the military option to defeat the opposition and stay in power.

The Obama's paralysis had enabled Al-Qaeda to establish a presence in Syria. This failed strategy boosted Iran and Hezbollah and encouraged them to put their full military might behind the al Assad's regime.

For over two years, we have been saying that all Syrians have rejected an Iraqi or Libyan style intervention. They don't want troops on the ground. They want no-fly zones in the North near the Turkish borders and in the South near the Jordanian borders. This will provide protection for the Syrian refugees and may encourage more defections from the regular Syrian army to the FSA. The second thing they demand which can be easily provided by NATO is anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. Whilst Russia and Iran are supplying armaments to the Syrian army, it makes lot of sense for the West and the so-called Friends of Syria to help the opposition. The murderous Syrian regime is getting economic and substantial military help from Russia, Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah. The cost of doing nothing in the long run is far greater than intervention or arming the rebels. On June 6th I wrote an article in the Huffington Post urging President Obama to Listen to John McCain and Lindsey Graham. I must say this; Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham and former Senator Joseph Lieberman have got it absolutely right on Syria. President Obama got it absolutely wrong.