Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Syria and the Seven Myths Promoted by Russia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations against Syria in the Mediterranean Sea. Ford Williams/Courtesy US Navy

While the United Sates’ limited missile attack on a Syrian air-base has won broad support across the world, a handful of nations have opted for a widdershins analysis.

The “quartet” of Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the truncated government led by the regime of Bashar al-Assad are promoting seven myths to discredit the American position.

The first myth is that the American move was illegal” because it lacked specific authorization from the United Nations Security Council. “They should have brought the issue {of chemical attacks in Idlib} to the Security Council,” says Vladimir Safrankov, Russian number-two diplomat at the UN.

However, Safrankov, like everyone else, knows that Russia would veto any resolution that would implicate the Assad clan in what is clearly a war crime. More importantly, perhaps, Russia’s own operations, including months of carpet-bombing against Aleppo, in Syria also have no authorization from the United Nations.

The second myth promoted by the Russian-led quartet is that the US attack has violated Syrian sovereignty. The North Koreans have been particularly loud on that score. “This is an unforgettable attack on a sovereign nation,” a spokesman in Pyongyang asserted last Monday.

But how much sovereignty is left in Syria, a country where the regime controls around 5 percent of the national territory and slightly above 40 percent of the population? In any case, Russia and Iran, the two key actors in Syria, take little notice of the so-called sovereignty they so loudly defend. Earlier this week a series of “consultations” took place between Tehran and Moscow, concerning President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani plus the two nation’s respective chiefs of staff and national security advisers.

State-controlled media in both Moscow and Tehran gave extensive coverage to the “strategic discussions” but made absolutely no mention of the Assad regime being involved in any way. Had Syria enjoyed any real sovereignty its so-called government would have been allowed to at least listen to the telephone conversations.

The third myth is that Assad is winning and would have had no need to use chemical weapons. But is he?

The core of the Syrian tragedy consists of the fact that none of the various contenders for power have the wherewithal for military victory.

Assad forces have managed to take back control of what is left of the Palmyra ruins and have secured a symbolic presence in Aleppo thanks to Russian air attacks. However, Assad himself knows and has publicly admitted that he lacks the manpower needed to seize, cleanse and keep territory. This is why his nominal control even in Damascus itself is more apparent than real.

“Assad is not winning,” says Tehran analyst Hamid Qaribian. “His allies know it and are only trying to make sure he doesn’t lose too quickly.”

Assad could hang on for a while because he still has a monopoly of fire from the air. But to win a war, boots on the ground are needed. He doesn’t have them because a majority of Syrians oppose his regime.

The Russian-Iranian-North Korean narrative sponsors a fourth myth: Assad is fighting ISIS in Syria.

However, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have carefully avoided fighting ISIS. There have been three notable battles between ISIS and Assad’s army, backed by Lebanese and other mercenaries brought in by Iran. Two battles concerned the ping-pong change of control in Palmyra. And one battle took place in October 2015 near when ISIS tried to move towards Swaida.

Assad’s air force has also avoided bombing ISIS strongholds, especially its “capital” in Raqqa. Their main targets have been non-ISIS armed groups fighting Assad, notably Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Fatah and Ahrar al-Shaam. In fact, the strategy is to create a situation in which the only choice in Syria is between Assad and ISIS.

Iran’s land forces chief General Pour-Dastan has even claimed that ISIS has agreed not to come closer than 40 kilometers to Iranian borders. The quid pro quo for that must be an undertaking by Iran and its Syrian clients not to attack ISIS. The Russian air force carried out 4,600 bombing sorties against Aleppo but has so far made no raids on Raqqa.

A fifth myth is that the American attack which knocked out or seriously damaged 20 per cent of Assad’s air force could lead to a war between the US and Russia. This myth is specially peddled by anti-Americans of both the right and the left including French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and UK Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The idea that Russia would retaliate by attacking US forces, presumably the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean in order to register anger at action taken against Assad is too absurd to contemplate. Putin may be a poker player but is certainly not suicidal. In any case, the Americans informed him of their decision to attack the Syrian air-base. He could have warned them that if they did he would retaliate. But he didn’t. In fact, because Russia controls the Syrian airspace, he provided the Americans with the clear corridors needed to launch the Tomahawks.

The sixth myth is that the chemical attack on Idlib was the work of the Syrian opposition and designed to achieve a propaganda coup. However, the community of international experts is unanimous in ruling out such a theory. The canisters containing the deadly substances were fired from the air, and anti-Assad forces have no flying engines.

Dr. Beyza Unal, a research fellow with the International Security Department at Chatham House, said the banned nerve agent is expensive and difficult to purify and store. “Something that needs a certain level of expertise and also money,” she said in an interview, adding that any facility would need the ability to take oxygen out of the area where sarin is stored.

“I don’t think rebel groups would have the ability governments would have to purify nerve agents to a level that would make them stable,” Unal adds.

Samples from the soil gathered in Khan Sheikhoun, where the chemical attack occurred, and tests on bodies of victims conducted in Turkey leave no doubt about the way the tragedy unfurled.

The seventh myth is that the US operation could damage the quest for a political solution. The fact, however, is that there is no political solution until and unless Russia moves back to the position it had in the Geneva 1 talks which included a timetable for replacing Assad.

No number of myths can change the reality that the overwhelming majority of Syrians no longer want Assad to be part of their lives. That view has now won strong support from the major Western democracies. Scripting Assad’s air force out of the picture could speed up that eventuality, experts say.