Human Rights

Middle East Divisions Exposed By Divergent Responses To Western Strikes In Syria

By Dima Abumaria | The Media Line

April 17, 2018

A Syrian woman walks past a placard bearing a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Damascus. (Photo: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

The split is largely along political and religious lines

The United States, Britain and France on Saturday launched a coordinated military strike targeting three chemical weapons facilities in Syria, in response to the usage of such arms by the Assad regime the previous week in Douma. The Western intervention—the most significant during the seven-years-long war, with some 100 missiles having been fired—received mixed reviews in Washington, London and Paris, with some praising the resolve of leaders to uphold the longstanding international norm preventing the usage of non-conventional weapons; whereas others maintained that Assad got off too easy or altogether denounced the West’s interjection of itself into another war abroad.

As regards the Middle East, much of the public, as well as some governments, are perennially weary of any Western involvement in regional conflicts, especially in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and, more recently, the 2011 NATO operation that removed from power longtime Libyan strongman Muammar Ghaddafi. Given that coalition forces did not uncover stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the former country (ironically, there is evidence that Saddam Hussein transferred them to Syria), and taking into account that Tripoli had voluntarily ended its nuclear program in exchange for better relations with the West, many are skeptical that the latest attack was, in fact, geared towards preventing Assad’s use of chemical arms rather than advancing Western interests.

There is a divide largely along political and religious lines, with Shiite-ruled countries aligned with Iran, Assad’s main backer along with Russia, having denounced the attack. For instance, the defense minister of Lebanon—controlled by Tehran’s Hizbullah proxy, which itself is heavily involved in the fighting in Syria—described the mission “a fragrant violation of international law.” Baghdad, which is increasingly being pulled into the Islamic Republic’s orbit, warned that such action “threatens the security and stability of the region and gives terrorism another opportunity to expand.”

By contrast, Sunni Muslim states, led by Saudi Arabia, expressed support for the Western strikes, with the Arab League having called for an international probe into the “criminal” use of chemical weapons. Notably, some analysts nonetheless deemed the reaction relatively muted, perhaps a reflection of the concern on the part of Gulf states that the U.S. could use the mission as pretext to pull American troops out of Syria.

Sulaiman Al-Akeily, a Saudi political analyst, believes that given its limited scope the attack had the opposite of its intended effect, a position shared by many in Riyadh and which may explain why King Salman made no mention of it during a high-profile summit the next day. “The strikes served only to give Assad legitimacy because it did not reduce his military power and his position on the ground was not weakened. Moreover,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “the operation did not cover enough locations in Syria, especially strategic military bases which are the most important things to be destroyed. It also did not target any Iranian assets.”

Instead, Al-Akeily contends that the West’s motivation was “to wash away the guilt” of having done relatively little to prevent Assad’s massacres. But even this, he explained, was largely a show given that “the Syrian regime was threatened for a whole week which gave it time to transfer chemical weapons to Russian warehouses.”

Eran Singer, an Israeli political analyst specializing in the Arab world, agrees that the Western assault had little effect on the overall dynamics of the war, an assessment reinforced by former Mossad agent Gad Shimron. “It achieved the goal of putting restrictions on Assad’s regime,” Singer explained to The Media Line, before noting that “the Syrian government is still winning many battles around the country and this will not change.”

For his part, while describing the strikes as moderately successful, Shimron stressed to The Media Line that the operation should have been broader in scope. “It was very limited as it was designed to show Assad that there will be consequences any time he uses chemical weapons against his people, but at the same time not to make the Russians mad.”

Hanna Issa, a Palestinian law professor, slammed the Western “aggression,” which he argues contravened international law. “It is totally unacceptable for three countries that are members of the [United Nations] Security Council to behave like that,” he told The Media Line. Furthermore, he noted that attack occurred before international inspectors arrived in Douma to investigate whether chemical weapons had indeed been used.

Despite the criticism, U.S ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley affirmed that the strikes were “justified, legitimate and proportionate,” adding that American troops remain “locked and loaded” in the event Assad uses non-conventional arms in the future.

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