Latest update: December 11th, 2012
The bloodbath in Syria continues unabated. The manner in which it is being addressed by the nations of the world has something instructive to say to us Israelis who believe – rightly or not – that wholesale deaths in the Syrian style are what might await us, Heaven forbid, if our collective guard were to be let down from keeping an array of vicious enemies at bay.
Unabated might not actually be the best way to describe the Syrian slaughter, since the lust for blood on both (all?) sides is absolutely no less intense than it was when the chaos and barbarism erupted nearly two years ago.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which reports on such matters from London puts out rather laconic-sounding updates via its Facebook page every few days. On Monday, it gave us Sunday’s numbers:
Preliminary Death toll for Sunday 9/12/2012: About 60 Syrians killed so far, today. The dead include: 24 unarmed civilians, 13 rebel fighters, 5 unidentified fighters, and not less than 10 regime forces. 24 unarmed civilians.
Earlier this week, its tally for killings to date stood at something over 40,000.
But all is not lost. The friends of Syria – or to be more precise about this, the Friends of Syria, including the United States once Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recovers from an illness – are meeting this Wednesday in Morocco “to find ways of backing the political transition in the event of President Al-Assad’s fall, and mobilising vital humanitarian aid as winter sets in” [source].
What might we expect to come out of their discussions? The track record until now is depressing. The customary mechanisms for resolving catastrophic wars like the one that has Syria in its grip have been a complete failure. The Russian and Chinese governments have vetoed three separate UN Security Council resolutions that sought to get the al-Assad regime in Damascus to reduce the violence of the war it is waging against other Syrian groups. The Russians see themselves as Very Good Friends of Syria and prove it by accusing [source] the US and other states of wanting to achieve the deplorable goal of destabilizing Syria’s family-owned government.
An LA Times article this week says Moscow:
“will not seek the ouster of Assad, as international negotiators again fail to reach a breakthrough on the crisis in Syria… Russia downplayed White House fears that a desperate Assad could deploy chemical weapons and said the greatest danger was that part of Syria’s chemical arsenal could fall into the hands of rebels. Both U.S. and Israeli officials have also voiced concern that chemical armaments could end up in the hands of insurgents, who have overrun a number of military bases. Syria’s fragmented rebel legions includes hard-core Islamist brigades hostile to the West and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”
So the killing continues. But it appears we may be heading for some moments of truth.
This past Sunday, Israel’s man in Washington used the term “game changer” when referring [see this Wall Street Journal article] to reports that the Syrians are handing parts of their huge chemical warfare arsenal off to Hezbollah and other militant groups. Being a diplomat, he chose diplomatic language. But when Ambassador Michael Oren said he could not confirm reports that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had prepared sarin gas for use, he was understood by most people as saying that the government of Israel is indeed able to confirm those reports. (And an article today called “Israeli spies track Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon stocks” based on a report in the Times of London gives that some credence).
“We are watching the situation very carefully,” Oren said. “Syria has a very varied, deep chemical weapons program. It is geographically dispersed as well. Were those weapons to pass in to the wrong hands, Hezbollah’s hands, for example, that would be a game changer for us… Can you imagine Hezbollah, with its 70,000 rockets, could get its hands on chemical weapons? That could kill thousands of people.”
The Americans use different terminology. President Obama said four days ago that if the al-Assad regime used chemical weapons against their own people (as they did in 1982) that would amount to the crossing of “a red line.” It’s the same term he used many thousands of dead Syrians ago, back in August [“Obama warns Syria not to cross ‘red line’‘].
There are some news sources, like the Jordan-based al-Bawaba, that are reporting today [see “Assad already using chemical weapons on civilians, according to activists”] that al-Assad regime forces “mixing chemicals that could be used for the lethal nerve agent sarin” and pointing to online videos that purport to show “the destruction caused by what they identified as chemical weapons”.
For the mullahs of Iran, there’s nothing going on in Syria that raises any out-of-the-ordinary concerns. See “For Iran, Unrest in Syria Is Noise, Not Brutal War” in yesterday’s New York Times:
“When Syria’s agricultural minister, Subhi Ahmad al-Abdullah, arrived in the Iranian capital for a visit last week, everybody involved stuck to a well-worn script. There were welcoming ceremonies, handshakes in front of cameras and tête-à-têtes on rococo chairs. Stern-faced Iranian and Syrian officials discussed “expanding economic and agricultural ties” and signed a contract for the joint production of a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease. The unrest in Syria did not go unmentioned in the meetings, which were widely reported by Iranian state media. Iran’s vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, said Iran was confident of victory for the Syrian government forces, who, he said, were engaged in “sporadic fights with terrorists sent by regional countries. The upbeat ceremonies surrounding Mr. Abdullah’s visit illustrate how Iranian leaders perceive the bloody conflict that has engulfed their main ally in the Arabic world. While former Iranian diplomats, academics and analysts increasingly warn that President Bashar al-Assad’s government is on the brink of collapse, the country’s highest leaders insist the conflict is manageable and ultimately will be resolved to Iran’s advantage. Endless news broadcasts by Iran’s state television offer an ideological narrative in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar are doing the bidding of the United States and Israel, helping to arm foreign “terrorists” and sending them into Syria to punish it for having opposed Israel. War crimes committed by Syrian forces go unreported.”
To say that Israelis are not deeply worried about the threat from the country sitting on our northern border would be empty bravado. There is such a fear, and it has a solid basis. Even here, we have had occasion to blog about it several times. (See for instance “8-Dec-11: Syria: Terrible situation. Can’t get worse… can it?“, “8-Dec-11: So do the Syrians have poison gas?“, “16-Jun-11: Quote of the day: Violent repression, the Syrians and Washington” and others).
Which brings us to what can be done, and here we want to refer to an incisive op ed from today’s Washington Post, entitled “Watching Syria’s descent”.
The scariest thing about Syria, from the West’s point of view, may be the gap between the hair-raising scenarios senior officials are discussing about what may happen next and their limp strategies for preventing it. Inside the Obama administration, Syria is now likened by some to a second Somalia — only at the heart of the Middle East, and with the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons. One official recently described a near-term future in which the current, two-sided civil war breaks down into a free-for-all in which Sunni forces fight Kurds and each other as well as the Alawi remnants of Bashar al-Assad’s army; where the al-Qaeda branch known as Jabhat al-Nusra gains control over substantial parts of the country; and where the danger of chemical weapons use comes not just from the regime but from any other force that overruns a chemical weapons depot… So how to stop this? …As for the chemical weapons, the West’s hope is that Assad isn’t serious about using them, even though his forces have reportedly mixed the precursors of deadly sarin gas into bombs. But what if he does? President Obama warned again last week of “consequences” — but is the United States prepared to take quick military action in the event of a sudden chemical weapons attack? If not, how would the atrocity be stopped? [More]
So in the end, that’s the difference. A US and Western strategy for dealing with the mortal threat from Damascus by hoping the Syrians don’t have really bad intentions, versus an Israeli strategy that, at least on its face, identifies a “game changing” moment that presumably will lead to some kind of game-changing actions.
Those of us living just south of the Syrians intuitively understand how much more serious the consequences can be for us, compared with their effect on most others. It’s the sort of difference expressed in the oft-repeated parable of the farmer’s breakfast, and the respective roles played by the pig and the chicken. When the bacon and eggs are served up, the chicken can undoubtedly be said to have been concerned and involved. But the pig is really, truly and fully committed. When it comes to Syria, we’re not the chicken.
Visit This Ongoing War.Frimet and Arnold Roth
About the Author: Frimet and Arnold Roth began writing and speaking publicly soon after the murder of their fifteen year-old daughter Malki Z"L in the Jerusalem Sbarro massacre, August 9, 2001 (Chaf Av, 5761). They have both been, and are, frequently interviewed for radio, television and the print media, including CNN, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, and others. Their blog This Ongoing War deals with the under-appreciated price of living in a society afflicted by terrorism which, they contend, means the entire world. Frimet is a native of Queens, NY while her husband was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. They brought their family to settle in Jerusalem in 1988. They co-founded the Malki Foundation in 2001 and are deeply involved in its work as volunteers. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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