US President Barack Obama has said potential use of chemical weapons is “going to be a game changer” in Syria, where repeated calls for intervention fell on deaf ears for more than two years.
The US and major powers have so far weathered calls for intervention for several reasonable reasons. Except for Turkey, Britain and France, all of whom called for tougher measures against the Syrian regime, those reluctant to intervene cited possible uncertainty after the fall of the Syrian regime, risking emboldening radical groups in Syria and causing more bloodletting if the intervention is mishandled. Are these concerns now mitigated by the use of chemical weapons? If the use of chemical weapons is so deeply immoral that it makes the case for intervention, is the death of tens of thousands of people the tolerable situation?
The key to figure out the rationale behind this odd move is to understand when states decide to intervene. One thing stands clearer than others: States intervene when they see the military balance on the ground start to change against their favored side.
Two recent examples clearly show that interventions take place when one side starts losing. The first example is the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. For four years, Western powers stood by as atrocities unfolded in Bosnia, including the infamous 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 civilians in the town of Srebrenica. The intense air campaign against Serb fighters came shortly after this massacre, but it made little, if any, contribution to a wake-up call for NATO.
According to Ivo H. Daalder, the breaking point in the Bosnian War came after a decision by the Bosnian Serb leadership in early March 1995 that they needed to conclude the war by the end of that year. In four bloody years of intense fighting, Serbs were unable to break the impasse and control much of Bosnian land despite unprecedented atrocities not seen in Europe since the end of World War II.
Daalder argues that the strategy of the Serbs was simple: First, a large-scale attack on the three eastern Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde -- each an international “safe” area lightly protected by a token UN presence -- would swiftly capture these Muslim outposts in Serb-controlled Bosnian territory. Next, attention would shift to Bihac -- a fourth, isolated enclave in northwestern Bosnia -- which would be taken over with assistance from Croatian Serb forces. Finally, with the Muslims on the run, Sarajevo would become the grand prize, and its capture by the fall would effectively conclude the war.
The situation in the Bosnian War was only slightly different from Syria, with Russia then supporting the Serbs. But NATO intervention came shortly after the Serbs began their greater offensive.
|States intervene when they see the military balance on the ground start to change against their favored side.
Another recent example is the 2011 intervention in Libya, during which Col. Muammar Gaddafi was ousted and eventually brutally killed. In Libya, the entire eastern half of Libya was seized by rebels in less than a month before forces loyal to Col. Gaddafi went on the counteroffensive in early March. One by one, Libyan forces captured rebel-held cities and targeted the largest rebel-held city: Benghazi.
Hours before an assault on Benghazi -- we popularly call it the “Benghazi moment” -- French-led coalition forces (later NATO) intervened in Libya to tip the balance against the Gaddafi forces. The intervention in Libya would never have happened had the rebels defeated Gaddafi’s forces or been locked in a long and protracted conflict.
Successful military gains of the Syrian regime forces over the past few weeks have pushed the US and its allies to reconsider intervening in Syria.
Until now, Western powers, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf States aided the opposition in any way they could to defeat Assad’s forces. Twenty-five months into the uprising in Syria, opposition fighters are yet to deal a decisive blow to the regime’s forces. For the first time in the fighting, however, they have started to lose.
In the past few weeks, government forces have launched major offensives in Homs, Idlib, Kurdish-populated areas and in and around Aleppo and the capital Damascus. It is evidently clear that the military balance on the ground is tilting back toward government forces again after a counteroffensive.
Towns near Damascus such as Otaibah were seized by government forces this week, blocking the arms supply for the opposition from Jordan. Another front on the Lebanese border, Qusayir, was recaptured by the regime forces. The Syrian army was also successful in breaking the months-long siege in Homs and Idlib, making it easier to resupply arms to its forces stationed in these areas. If this pace of military advances by the regime forces continues, the opposition will be greatly weakened in a matter of weeks. Washington doubled its aid to the Syrian opposition last week, but the situation on the ground will change by the time the aid package is approved in Congress and reaches the fighters on the ground.
This change in the military balance made the case for intervention much stronger in Washington and other European capitals. Along with Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Ankara also voiced concerns over the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Other nations will follow suit in the days to come.
On Saturday, Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış acknowledged that Washington is preparing to intervene in Syria and that the possible use of chemical weapons are not the main drive. Russia believes that claims of chemical weapons use are another ruse by the Western nations to strengthen the case for foreign intervention in Syria.
Washington says the evidence of chemical weapons use is only “preliminary.” The evidence will get “rock solid” if Damascus wins major battles against the opposition next week. In previous months, there had also been reports of alleged chemical use by the Syrian army. True or not, there is no reason why Assad’s regime would use chemical weapons if it knows that that means inviting Washington to intervene.
Damascus faces a major dilemma: If it continues with its so far successful offensive, it will make the case bolder for intervention. Western powers don’t want Assad to win and they were expecting opposition forces to finish the fight. If the opposition fails to make any further gains, the West will come to its aid.
If Damascus is smart enough, it will strengthen its bases in and around the capital to have an upper hand in possible negotiations and offer dialogue to solve the crisis. To realize exactly this, the Syrian regime has launched major assault against opposition fighters in Damascus suburbs. It captured the strategic town of Otaibah and dealt a huge blow to rebels in the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet al-Fadel.
On Friday, government troops pushed into two northern neighborhoods with heavy air and artillery attacks. The fighting was concentrated in the Jobar, Qaboun and Barzeh suburbs of Damascus. After securing his hold around the capital, Assad will likely offer dialogue with the opposition.
In a nutshell, the use of chemical weapons is not a decisive element to make the case for intervention. It is only an excuse to intervene at a time when military involvement has become more necessary than ever.
You can follow the author on Twitter @MahirZeynalov (English) and @MahirZeynalov_ (Turkish).