Hannah Arendt, who pondered a lot upon the nature of totalitarianism, wrote about the difficulty of applying the conception of forgiveness in situations where faced with impenitent evil, like for instance in the case of Nazi Germany. She made the point that even though Jesus recommended forgiveness, this was not automatic and unconditional, but instead, took place in response to apology. In a parallel manner, mercy responsed to repentance. Unrepenting, impenitent evil was doomed to perdition.
Yesterday (22 August 2013) the world was faced by countless videos from the suburban areas of the Syrian capital Damascus, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, used chemical weapons of mass destruction to kill civilians. Still today, the most modest accounts reported at least hundreds dead, while the highest accounts referred to around two thousand. Part of the video material shows rows after rows of dead children lain on floors, while others document the efforts of medical staff and volunteers to help those suffering the impacts or dying as a result of being exposed to nerve gas. Some of the helpers suffer from symptoms themselves and die.
A large number of those dead seem to be children. The Syrian regime and the propaganda and useful idiots backing it have claimed the victims were terrorists, or try to suggest the Syrian opposition bombed their own supporters with chemical weapons.
This WMD attack was not the first of its kind in Syria, although the number of victims seems to be much higher than in any of the dozen to twenty previous chemical weapons attacks that have been reported from Syria. The Assad regime is also not the first one in the region to use chemical weapons as a means of genocide on civilians. Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds in the famous massacre of Halabja, and also against Iraqi Shi'ites and against Iran.
Wait a minute: haven't we been told since 2003 that Saddam never had any weapons of mass destruction? Of course that's what we've been told with high volume, but it doesn't make it true. Saddam not only had WMD, he was also one of those Middle Eastern dictators to use these weapons against his own people. When he did so, the United States did not make a punitive attack on Iraq - and neither did anyone else. On the other hand, the US did invade Iraq much later, when it happened to suit the US interests.
That Saddam had WMD was not the big lie of the Iraq War. What you could take as the lie was instead the claim that those weapons would have posed an immediate threat to the US, and that they would have been the main reason for the war to overthrow Saddam's regime and to replace it with a more cooperative one. The Syrian dictator Assad - who shares the ideology of Ba'athist national-socialism with late Saddam - knows this very well. He has assessed that he is in the same position where Saddam was at the time of Halabja - not in the same position where Saddam was in 2003. You see, the difference between these two is the calculation over the probability of the leading Western great powers having both capability and willingness to defy Russia, the eternal supporter of cruel dictators, by overthrowing dictators by means of force.
At the time of Halabja, Western powers did not have such willingness. In 2003 they had. The Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi calculated that he would not be stopped by means of force, so he could launch a campaign of unscrupulous mass destruction to the popular uprising. He miscalculated. Even though the US was extremely unwilling to make a military intervention to Libya, it changed its mind when not just the entire Arab World but also the leading European powers France and Britain took a stand to support military intervention and finally persuaded the US to provide the muscle.
Without the intervention, Libya would today face the same situation as Syria. Libyan people would have most cruelly murdered in perhaps hundreds of thousands, and the escalating war would have a catastrophic impact on entire North Africa - especially the neighbours Tunisia and Egypt - as well as on the Sahel. Without Western intervention to Libya, Qaddafi would have got continued support from Russia and perhaps also from Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and other supporters of cruel authoritarianism. These countries would have armed Qaddafi, sent special troops to North Africa and destabilized the region a lot, to the great detriment of the West and the Western-minded constituencies in the Arab countries.
Of course the Libyan situation still continued long enough to have some negative impact. The mercenary troops Qaddafi had recruited from the Sahel countries were expelled from Libya but they took refuge in the deserts of the Sahel, regrouped and aligned themselves and their heavy weaponries with the previously marginal regional Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels, proceeding to eventually conquering all of northern Mali. France, however, dealed with the situation quite elegantly and with minimal casualties to their own.
The successful interventions to Libya and Mali have not removed the threat of extremist movements from North Africa and the Sahel, but they have significantly limited it. Most importantly, they have isolated it to the non-state sphere, to be a threat posed by relatively weak illegal combat groups. That is not a very significant threat to the wider security policy, even though it will keep making some headlines. If the US did not intervene in Libya, and France in Mali, the situation in the entire region would be remarkably more horrible. Syria, if anything, should make this point clear.
Although the war propaganda supporting the Assad regime - backed by the global reach of Russia and its allies - attempts to make us at least doubt that the WMD attack on civilians in Damascus suburbs was not committed by the Assad regime, those with better knowledge have probably little doubt about it.
The Assad regime is the only actor in Syria with large quantities of chemical weapons and the means to use them in such a large attack against civilians. Assad's regime has previously used these chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Assad's regime has had no inhibitions or hesitation to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians and to bomb the largest cities of Syria into dust.
Yet for the sake of assurance we do well to consider the four most common alternative conspiracy theories: 1) That the attack was staged by the Syrian opposition to frame the Assad regime as the culprits and thereby to internationalize the conflict. 2) That the attack was a provocation by one of the jihadi groups fighting Assad but outside the actual opposition. These jihadi groups largely consist of foreigners. 3) That the attack was done by a foreign country, for example the US or Israel, in order to gain an excuse to invade Syria. 4) That the attack was done by a "rogue element", a local commander or militia fighting on Assad's side but without authorization from the president.
In my opinion, all these four conspiracy theories are implausible, but let me look at all of them shortly before coming back to the reasons I believe were on the background of the decision by the Assad regime and its state supporters to use WMD against civilian population.
1) At the same time when the attack took place, the pro-Assad war propaganda started spreading the idea that the Syrian opposition would have bombed itself with nerve gas in order to blame the regime. This theory would presuppose that the opposition had got possession of WMD. Who would have given such weapons to them? In addition, the theory would presuppose they had the means and the opportunity to use these weapons in the capital Damascus. Moreover, the theory would require that once having got possession of WMD the opposition would have made the absurd decision to use them against their own people instead of striking against the Syrian army or the shabiha.
Unlike the Assad regime that depends on the foreign support provided by Russia and Iran, the Syrian opposition is completely dependent on the support, combatants and protection provided by the Syrian population. Getting caught for such an outrageous act would be extremely high, even if one would try to put the blame on someone else.
Besides, this conspiracy theory is made unreliable by the fact that it repeats almost identically the similar propaganda that was used to question the war crimes of Russia's allies in the Balkans and in the Caucasus. Also in those cases the world was flooded with disinformation claiming that Bosnians, Kosovars, Chechens and Georgians had bombed themselves or committed massacres in order to engage Western powers on their side. Later it became evident that only Serbia and Russia had committed the mentioned kind of mass destruction on civilians. When the contents, narratives and means of spreading such propaganda continue same from conflict to conflict, there's reason to suspect they originate in the same or related spin factories.
2) Some of the groups fighting Assad are about as repulsive as the Assad regime and its militias. As the Syrian War has dragged on and the Syrian opposition has remained isolated and lacking hard international support (while receiving some soft support), Syria started receiving many fanatic jihadists from the surrounding countries and from Europe. They saw in Syria a religious jihad rather than the struggle for freedom and better future against cruel tyranny that the Syrians saw in it. Some of the jihadi groups are wicked in their thought to the extent that one could basically expect from them provocations that are totally contrary to the goals of the Syrian opposition. Some of these groups also seem to give as little value to human life as the Assad regime.
Yet it is implausible that the jihadists committed the attack to Damascus suburbs. These groups would have even bigger difficulties than for instance the Free Syrian Army to convince anyone to hand them chemical WMD. In spite of their separateness, they are still to some extent dependent on a level of support from the Syrian population, and in order to avoid condemnation they would have to hide their complicity to such an outrageous attack both from outsiders and from the rest of the Syrian opposition. Getting caught of such an act would mean certain condemnation even among those international jihadi circles, whose support is necessary for the groups fighting in Syria. It would be a risk they could not afford taking.
The jihadists would finally lack an actual motive. The thing these groups want least is that Westerners get involved in the Syrian situation. On the contrary, the jihadists have benefitted from the isolation of the Syrian opposition, and gained foothold for the very reason that the West has not helped the Syrians. The jihadists do not absolutely not want to see Assad's rule replaced by a pro-Western and Western-backed coalition. They want Islamic rule. That cannot be built up by nerve-gasing Muslims.
The best known jihadi groups fighting in Syria, such as Jabhat an-Nusra and Dawlat al-Islamiyya, are sure to be religious fanatics, but they have tried to win the population's trust with their discipline and by punishing criminals. The hard-earned reputation would be lost forever by making massive attacks against Muslim civilians. If one of the jihadi groups would happen to obtain chemical weapons, they could be believed to have a temptation to use those weapons in terrorism against the West or Israel. They might also be interested in passing such weapons on to extremist groups operating somewhere else, which is one of the traditional fears on the background of containing the proliferation of WMD.
3) The third conspiracy theory - the one supposing the attack was done by an external state that seeks an excuse to invade Syria - usually points finger at either Israel or the US. This theory would presuppose these states are prepared to risk their international reputation by resorting to such an outrageous provocation. Yet both the US and Israel depend on the support of the Western World - not for example on that of the morally more flexible Russia. Getting exposed for such an attack would be devastating to them even after decades - something that has never really been a burden for Russia or Iran (both exposed for outrageous provocations by research years after the actual acts). At least in the US large-scale unscrupulous political conspiracies are made very difficult by the high risk of leaks.
Even if we believe that either the US or Israel would be prepared for such an attack only to gain an excuse for invasion, we would then have to assume two things: First, that these countries want to invade Syria. Secondly, that they have not previously had a sufficient excuse for such invasion. I think both these assumptions are false. Both the US and Israel have been extremely reluctant to intervene militarily in the Syrian situation, and the Assad regime and its backers know this. Moreover, even if the Americans and the Israelis had now changed their minds and desired to launch a major military intervention, there would have been plenty of excuses for this from the last two years.
The US has known all the way that it will not be able to get acceptance from Russia, Assad's strongest supporter, for any UN-authorized action against Assad. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are not bound by UN authorizations; their military intervention has continued ruthlessly and with impunity throughout the Syrian conflict. If the US wanted an intervention, it could any time gather a unilateral coalition of the willing, since Britain, France, Turkey and a significant group of Arab countries have for long wished the use of force against Assad. They have lacked courage due to the absence of the American muscle. One of the most important reasons for the US reluctance is the experience that as soon as the US takes a stand backing an intervention, the others would load main responsibility and most of the costs on the Americans.
4) The fourth conspiracy theory is a kind of face-saving formula. People want to believe that the attack was committed by a local commander without Assad's authorisation, or perhaps one of the militias and extremist groups fighting on Assad's side, like the shabiha or the Lebanese Hizbullah, which for the last months had been responsible for most of Assad's military gains in Syria. Hizbullah is likely to have the means for such an attack, given that it gets the WMD from the Syrian regime. Yet it faces the same problems I mentioned in reference to the jihadi groups opposing Assad. Hizbullah is not independent from the support it gets from Arab populations around the region.
It is extremely unlikely that any local commander under the Assad regime could make a decision on the use of WMD, especially against civilian population sleeping in their residential areas. I find it obvious that the decision has been made on the highest political level, and that Russia and Iran have been at least informed, more likely consulted on the decision. I find it likely that Russia and Iran have been conscious and even given their active aceptance for the attack, which of course makes it the more frightening.
Why then would Assad resort to such an attack at the time when exactly one year has been passed from Obama's red line claim on the use of chemical weapons, and when the UN observers have just arrived in the country? Exactly that's why. What we see here is a shocking demonstration of power, meant to paralyze opposition, to frighten off neighbouring countries, and to humiliate especially Obama but at the same time the entire Western international community. The UN is blocked by Russia's veto and will not be capable of investigating these attacks. The Assad regime already prevented observers from getting access to the alleged sites where chemical weapons were used. Is it likely the regime would do this if the attacks were committed by the opposition?
So far every time when the UN observers arrived in Syria, the Assad regime has committed some kind of "terrorist" provocation to back its propaganda. Yesterday's attack was of course much larger and claimed much more victims than the previous ones, but the propaganda materials seemed prepared in advance and were fed to the world in the usual order.
Therefore, the conclusion concerning the case seems to take the most horrifying shape. It is impenitent evil we're dealing with here. The political message of the attack is: "We can do whatever - and we do it with impunity. The world will not intervene." This message is addressed to all the domestic resistance: "Look what cowards your supposed supporters are - they are now shivering in fear and are incapable of doing anything for you. Surrender unconditionally or we're prepared to kill even the entire population if we have to."
It is likely that the message is also addressed to the neighbouring countries, especially Jordan and Turkey. If this is the case, a secret outrageous threat has probably been communicated to these countries in advance, and the Damascus attack was a demonstration of Syria being serious about the threat. Russia has probably worked Israel day and night to ensure inaction. At the same time it's likely that the neighbouring countries have received assurances that if they back off, WMD is only used against the Syrian people. This is what the regime can do with impunity as long as Russia uses its veto in the UN and no Western power is prepared for unilateral intervention.
As a precendent this case is most terrible. If the leading Western powers do not react, the risk increases significantly that also other dictators will once again resort to open genocidal action against their populations - and some even against small neighbouring countries. The United States is thoroughly humiliated and its credibility in the entire world and especially in the Middle East will plunge. Saudi Arabia and Russia have already approached each other and the Saudi chief of intelligence has offered agreement on weapons sales with Russia, "because it seems the US is retreating in the region".
It may also happen that Assad and his supporters take their gamble one step too far, and the red lines that at the moment have no credibility whatsoever will suddenly become real. Qaddafi did lose his gamble. Assad, too, can still lose it. Russia and Iran, however, are world champions in gambling, and they've calculated that the US doesn't dare to check the cards but will retreat instead. The following months will show whether that calculation is correct.
Even if Assad finally loses the game, Russia and Iran have already been successful for the gamble they're waged for two years in order to stop the Arab Spring and turn it upside down. They have managed to once again trap the US and the international community in a situation where all their options are bad. Retreating would mean huge defeats in the MENA region, both measured in stability and influence but especially in Western prestige. An intervention, on the other hand, would mean getting once agian tied up with large economic, political and diplomatic risks, which Russia and Iran will seek to exploit to the maximum - trying to maximize Western losses. For Russia and Iran, Assad's defeat would be an important loss, but in no way the end of the game.