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And the administration made it clear that any use of WMD for any reason by Syria would not be tolerated. President Obama warned that it would be a “tragic mistake” for Syria to employ WMD. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was even more blunt:
Any talk about any use of any kind of a weapon like that in this situation is horrific and chilling. The Syrian regime has a responsibility to the world, has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens to protect and safeguard those weapons. That kind of loose talk just speaks to the kind of regime that we’re talking about.
One of the keys to the shift in policy is increased efforts by the US to close down air and sea routes of supply from Iran. The US has tried to convince Iraq to close its air space to flights from Iran that are believed to carry weapons to the regime, while also having discussions with the Egyptians about closing the Suez canal to ships carrying arms to Syria. The Syrian opposition, which has been warming to the US in recent months as a result of a concerted effort by diplomats to make contact and develop good relations with key members, insists the US should make a greater effort to achieve the interdiction of arms by putting pressure on both Egypt and Iraq.
Neither country has been very cooperative — especially Iraq which on Monday became the only member in the Arab League to come out against a statement asking for Assad’s immediate resignation. “This call is not appropriate at this time because it is interfering in the sovereignty of another country,” Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi told AFP, adding that “There are other means to secure a peaceful transition of authority.”
Any Syrian transition will necessarily involve the protection of minorities who fear a Sunni-dominated government more than they fear the oppression of Bashar Assad. Christians, Druze, Kurds, Shiites, and especially the Alawites, who currently dominate the military and economy, are worried that a Muslim Brotherhood government would take away the relative freedom they have to worship, while imposing strict Islamic codes of dress and in the courts. The administration can do little more than urge the political opposition, represented by the Syrian National Council, to respect minority rights and that any transitional government should include representatives from all sects and factions.
Many observers believe this is wishful thinking. The Kurds have reportedly made a deal with Assad to stay out of the rebellion if Syrian troops leave Kurdish areas, while Kurdish fighters have been training in Iraq in order to take the place of Syrian troops who would be redeployed to trouble spots. The Kurds have also made a deal with the rebels to stay out of Kurdish areas. What this portends for the future of a post-Assad Syria is unknown, but it presents the possibility that Syrian Kurds would resist being integrated into a transitional government.
The urgency given to discussions at the highest level of the Obama administration is indicative of how very little control the US — and the world — will have once President Assad is forced out. Changes in policy, large and small, only mask the difficulties ahead. Civil wars, once begun, don’t go according to plan. One need only witness what is happening in Libya where factions are still shooting at each other despite an election that was held recently.
But Syria would be much worse in the aftermath of a rebel victory. The opposition is hopelessly fractured and all sides are arming themselves. The possibility of bloody sectarian violence becomes more pronounced the longer Assad remains in power and the less united the political opposition is in their vision for a post-regime Syria. Al-Qaeda is in Syria hoping to exploit the chaos for its own purposes while the Muslim Brotherhood, dominating the Syrian National Council, waits in the wings for its chance to take power.
How can this situation be managed? The US is looking for a “controlled demolition of the Assad regime,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He added ominously, “But like any controlled demolition, anything can go wrong.”
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