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War clouds loom large over Syria

With the west serious about an attack on Syria on the grounds that the regime used chemical weapons last week, the ongoing crisis has taken a dangerous turn. Although both sides are sticking to their respective positions, peaceful negotiations are the only real option.

Following accusations by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria has been destroying the evidence of its chemical weapon attack the western powers have upped their military readiness despite bitter opposition from Russia and Iran. Legal sanction for an attack has yet to be given by the UN Security Council.

As military hardware, including fighter bombers, has been moved to Britain’s Akrotiri Airfield in Cyprus, just 160 km from the Syrian shore, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC that American forces are “ready” to launch strikes on Syria if President Barack Obama so decides: “We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the President wishes to take.” Senior officers from ten western and Arab states met in Amman over the weekend and Syria was on the agenda. All of this follows a report by Reuters that the US Navy has deployed a fourth warship in the Mediterranean capable of launching long-range cruise missiles.

In response, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem warned that the regime will not surrender but will defend itself if attacked. “We have two options: either to surrender, or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal,” he said. “The second choice is the best: we will defend ourselves.” He again insisted that Damascus neither used chemical weapons nor hindered the UN weapons inspectors and their work at the site of the alleged attack. “No country in the world would use chemical weapons against its own people,” argued Moallem, “but it provides a good excuse to wage a war against us; but where’s their evidence?” On the face of it this is a valid question from the government in Damascus, but the west appears ready to go ahead with an attack regardless. The spectre of Iraq, and its non-existent weapons of mass destruction and regime change, hovers in the background.

Russia, meanwhile, is counselling against what it calls a “clash of civilisations”. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov said that Moscow was “greatly alarmed” by the statements from Paris and London that NATO may intervene to destroy chemical weapons in Syria without Security Council backing. He claimed that Russia will not start a military confrontation with anyone over Syria, which was an ambiguous statement, leaving the way open for a heavy response to any western attack. The minister warned of “dire consequences” of foreign military action against its Syrian ally.

The sabre-rattling bodes ill for the whole region, not just for Syria. Indeed, the possibility of Iran using the oil weapon is something that the whole world should be concerned about. It is almost certain that an attack would be followed by an increase in the number of terrorist attacks in retaliation; these could take place anywhere and at any time.

The best course, therefore, has to be for serious talks between the west and the Syrian regime under the auspices of the United Nations and other regional or global forums such as the Non-Aligned Movement in the hope that a compromise may be agreed. Regime change should be dropped from the war aims. Who their president should be is a matter for the people of Syria, not the international community.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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