By Prof. Omar Faruque
Syria is a military, authoritarian republic led by President Bashar al-Asad since 2000. His father Hafez al-Asad, who died that year, had led the country for 30 years. Dissent is nominal or not tolerated. Media are government-controlled. So are elections. On May 27, 2007, Bashar al-Asad ran for a second presidential term in a national referendum. He was unopposed, garnering 97.6 per cent of the vote. Syria has a 250-seat legislative People’s Council and a judiciary, but no independence between the branches. The president heads the council that appoints and fires judges. Syria is officially a secular republic. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims (74 per cent). Alawites, who take their name from the fourth caliph Ali, are a minority Shiite sect that accounts for about 10 per cent of the population — including President Bashar al Asad. Christians of various denominations make up 10 per cent of the population; Jews and Druze make up about 3 per cent.
While poverty is not a major issue in Syria, neither is wealth. The country is best compared, economically, to the old closed economies of the Soviet Bloc before 1991. Syria has limited oil and natural gas reserves (2.4 billion barrels and 8.5 billion cubic meters, respectively), but enough, with agriculture, to account for half the country’s economic output. Strict government control of the economy keeps it from growing at the 6-to-8 per cent rate of emerging economies despite some reforms (the 2006 growth rate was 3.5 percent). Foreign investment is minimal, unemployment high, and water supplies limited.
Thanks to compulsory conscription that begins at 18 and lasts 30 months (18 in the Syrian navy), Syria maintains an army of 400,000, including reserves. Most of the Syrian military’s equipment, while considerable, is outdated. Syria has about 4,700 tanks, most of them of Soviet vintage. GlobalSecurity.org reports that as of 2003, “Syria had a combined total of several hundred Scud and SS-21 SRBMs [short-range ballistic missiles], and is believed to have chemical warheads available for a portion of its Scud missile force. Syria’s missiles are mobile and can reach much of Israel.”
Syria’s poor human rights record is worsening. The Syrian Human Rights Committee declared 2006 a new low for human rights since Bashar Al-Asad became President, as security forces have carried out widespread arrests of human rights activists and political opposition figures demanding that Syria normalize relations with Lebanon. Kurds are being harassed and imprisoned. Eight journalists and Web-based dissidents were arrested in 2006 as the government continues its unbending grip on media. “Emergency Rule,” declared in 1963, remains in effect, enabling arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and torture.….
World leaders divided on military action:
World leaders in their recent meeting for the final day of the G20 summit in Russia remain divided over military action in Syria. Italian PM Enrico Letta said the splits in opinion were confirmed at Thursday’s ( Sept. 5, 2013)working dinner in St Petersburg. A spokesman for the Russian presidency said a US military strike on Syria would “drive another nail into the coffin of international law”. At the UN, the US ambassador accused Russia of holding the Security Council hostage by blocking resolutions. Samantha Power said the Security Council was no longer a “viable path” for holding Syria accountable for war crimes. The US government accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of killing 1,429 people in a poison-gas attack in the Damascus suburbs on 21 August. The UK said scientists at the Porton Down research laboratories have found traces of sarin gas on cloth and soil samples.
But Mr Assad has blamed rebels for the attack. China and Russia, which have refused to agree to a Security Council resolution against Syria, insist any action without the UN would be illegal. The US and France are the only nations at the G20 summit to commit to using force in Syria. The United Nations said, it needs another $3.3bn (£2bn) to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis up to the end of this year.
Allegations on use of chemical weapons
Opposition activists accused the Syrian government of carrying out the attack as part of a wider scale operation to edge the rebels further outside of the capital. They said army rockets dropped toxic agents onto civilian areas. The Syrian government, however, has strenuously denied that it has ever used chemical weapons. Immediately after the attack, the Syrian army denied using poisonous gas, describing the claims as “false and completely baseless”. Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi has said the attack would not be possible because of the presence of the government’s own forces in the area allegedly affected. Syrian officials have suggested that the opposition were behind any such attacks and that they were encouraged in this by Western powers. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad insisted it was a tactic by the rebels to turn around the civil war which he said “they were losing”. The government had previously admitted to having stocks of chemical weapons, however, they stated they would never be used “inside Syria”.
Initial reports and video footage of the attack emerged from social media sources, making the claims difficult to verify and causing many to reserve judgement on whether chemical weapons were actually used. Despite this, chemical weapons experts said the large volume of visual evidence would be difficult to fake. Three days after the attack on August 29, 2013, medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres confirmed that three hospitals it supports in Damascus treated about 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” on the day of the attack. They said 355 of these died. Medical experts said large numbers of patients displayed convulsions, pinpointed pupils, excessive saliva and difficulty in breathing – all tell-tale signs of nerve agent poisoning thought most likely to be sarin. They were treated with atropine and other known antidotes, which the medics said worked in many cases, despite running out of treatments. A team of UN chemical weapons experts already in Damascus to investigate separate allegations of chemical weapons use managed to gain access to the sites near Damascus on 26 August, five days after the attack occurred. For four days, they spoke to survivors, nurses and doctors and took blood and urine samples from the districts affected. They have since returned to The Hague and are awaiting the results of their findings, which they will then present in a final report to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But the UN team is only responsible for investigating whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them.
What about the legality of military action?
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has insisted the use of force will only be legal if it is in self-defence or undertaken with authorisation from the UN Security Council, as set out in the UN Charter. However, legal experts are divided. Though many agree with Mr Ban, some suggest action may be permissible if there is evidence of a crime against humanity while others point out that some states are increasingly making the case for legal interventions on humanitarian grounds. The UK government argued that limited military strikes to deter future chemical weapons attacks would be in line with international law. Syria’s key allies Russia and Iran have also been highly critical of any intervention. Russia has said there is no proof the Syrian government was behind the Ghouta attacks and has warned of “catastrophic consequences” of any intervention, calling it a “grave violation of international law”. Although Russia is unlikely to be drawn into any direct confrontation, correspondents say it may increase weapons supplies to Damascus in retaliation. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said an intervention would be a “disaster”. Other Iranian officials have in the past warned of consequences for the region and recently threatened Israel would be attacked in return. There has been speculation that Lebanese militant Shia movement Hezbollah, allied to Iran and which is fighting alongside government troops in Syria, might fire rockets against Israel in response to any Western strike.
The developments involving Syria have become a matter of concern all over the world. As many states including Russia are against any military attack without the approval of the UN Security Council, the US along with its handful of allies cannot go for action against Syria. It is very much known to the world community that a few years back the US with its some allies launched a war on Iran on the allegation that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But finally the US authority failed to discover WMD in Iraq. We have seen how the Western forces shattered Iraq and its thousand years of civilization with bombing and air attacks. As things are obtained, Syria is going to embrace the same fate like Iraq. Unless the allegations on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government are proved to be true by the UN investigators and UNSC approves attack according to the UN Charter, any attack by the US or by its allies will not be acceptable. It will call for more disaster and human casualties. Hence, the war on Iraq should not be repeated in Syria.
–(The writer of this article is the editor of the English weekly Dhaka Post, chief editor at the Fortnightly Tritiya Bangla, advisory editor at the New York based weekly Probash Barta.)
By Prof. Omar Faruque