Ghouta Massacre Reactions Show The Region's Shifting Dynamics

News circulating on possible international and Western reactions to the chemical attack in Syria have shed light on the contradictions and changing interests miring involved parties.

al-monitor A UN chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, inspects one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Zamalka, Aug. 29, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammad Abdullah.

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us, syrian, regional politics in the middle east, massacre

Aug 29, 2013

Altering or accelerating the course of events in Syria would require an earthshaking event. There must be some sort of turning point to implement new dynamics, allowing the creation of a different scene. The crimes committed in the Ghouta region in eastern Damascus — in all their humanitarian, legal and political dimensions — have served as this turning point.

The use of chemical weapons goes beyond being a crime against humanity, given that it violates even the most basic laws currently governing the international system. Even though this violation is not the first of its kind —  especially given that major countries have previously conducted similar attacks without any deterrent — it sets forth, however, incentives that seem sufficient to move toward changing the political and military scene and tipping its balance. In fact, chemical weapons were used against the Kurds during Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s, after Washington facilitated the Iraqi government’s acquisition of these weapons. Moreover, the American forces widely used depleted uranium during the bombardment of Iraq and the invasion of 2003.

What happened in Ghouta indicates to what extent the war in Syria has gone. If the regime were responsible for the use of chemical weapons, a new violation would be added to the long list of violations that began in the first days of the revolution in Daraa, and then recurred in many other regions at the hand of state agencies or alternative militias.

If the armed opposition is the responsible party — and information has already suggested that the opposition used sarin gas in Khan al-Asal, as noted by Carla del Ponte, a member of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria — this would mean that the use of chemical weapons is not an exception but rather a mere continuation of previous practices. If there is an unknown story, such as a technical error one party committed while attacking the reserves of the other party, this story will no longer be effective in terms of the high cost of human losses, or political and military losses for that matter, since the incident was already used to justify taking weighty decisions.

Moreover, the Ghouta attack highlights a severe moral crisis. Some have linked their stance toward the crime to the identity of the perpetrator. Subsequently, the denunciation of this massacre was reduced to direct political aims. Throughout the past days, some politicians and commentators have supported international intervention, regardless of the identity of the party behind the tragedy. On the other side, some have justified their subtle denunciation with the refusal of such potential intervention. In this sense, the Ghouta crime has established that standards are decaying and has affirmed that the victims are assessed according to how beneficial they are to the political agenda of the regime and some of its opponents. This was the way previous crimes were dealt with in Banias, Ghouta, Houla, the Latakia countryside and many other regions. They were categorized, first and foremost, based on the affiliation of the victims, even though they were all civilians.

Ghouta is a reminder of the past of this region and an affirmation of its present. One does not need a documented archive to remember the massacre of Halabja, nor does one need a good memory to call to mind the fabrications of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the UN Security Council prior to the devastating attack of the US forces on Iraq. The American attack was a prerequisite to a tragedy that lasted for a decade and is ongoing.

The past of the region is marked by a large number of defeats caused by ruling regimes that had deep-rooted moral and formative defects. This past also exposes that many conspiracies — beyond the overuse of this term — were fomented as a normal part of international relationships. The present situation of the region, however, which is validated by the Ghouta incident and the subsequent stances, is a stark extension of the aforementioned past and an exposure and intensification of the categorical inclinations of the powers of the region, entrenched by the past.

The Ghouta incident is also a way to measure the shift in awareness in the Arab world. Two years back, wide popular sentiment, which is hard to weigh, rose in favor of NATO intervention in Libya. This sentiment contradicted that which rejected the 2003 war on Iraq. Regardless of the different aspects of these two incidents — given that Libya was witnessing a popular movement threatened with eradication, while Iraq was under an international blockade that was crippling its society — some felt that the difference between both sentiments reflected a shift in Arab awareness. Arabs changed their approach toward their relationship with foreign countries and began to differentiate between foreign intervention on the one hand and reliance on local powers to defeat authoritarian regimes on the other.

Since the fall of former President Moammar Gadhafi at the hands of NATO, many developments have come to pass, some of which are related to the current worn-out situation in Libya. Others are linked to restoring the stature of the traditional state pillars in a central country like Egypt, noting that — once the state has been restored — the populace will refuse to allow anyone to encroach on the state and will not support foreign powers.

The developments that will unfold after the Ghouta incident put forth the challenge of accepting foreign intervention and shed light on the shift in Arab awareness in that regard. The Ghouta issue, in addition to what happened before, is a test for the international power balance and the will to find a solution, which will likely be imposed by foreign powers on internal powers.

The crime exposed to what extent every international party can go in the battle of the "brink," in its attempt to conclude a settlement that recreates the Syrian reality. In this sense, the Russian stance seemed oscillating, while a Western determination to capitalize on the moment to recreate alternatives has surfaced. Yet, Russian reluctance and Western impulse do not clarify how things will go. Settlement seems unlikely to happen unless it comes as part of regional agreements.

Nowadays, the battle extends from Baghdad, to Syria and Beirut, while the squares of some Gulf countries and Yemen are dormant hotbeds of tension. The link between these squares does not require a genius mind to understand. Yet, in spite of this, some call on remembering the regional and international factors of the conflict and that they set the frames of war without having to pay the bill of the bloodshed. It is astonishing how some challenge almost conclusive evidence that points toward the impossibility of a settlement and affirms that running after such a settlement will escalate the bloodshed and poison the open wounds.

It is important to mention that Ghouta not only reflects the Syrian reality, but also the reality of the Levant in its entirety. The victims of Ghouta are the victims of this miserable reality.

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