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Syria: New proxy battles as Macron cuddles up to Trump
May 12, 2018, 8:44 am

On April 7, images showing children being frantically hosed off in what was described as a suspected chemical attack in the district of Douma, Syria were beamed across the world.

The Russians and the Syrians claimed it was staged by a humanitarian organization called the White Helmets. The Russians went even further that they have proof the British government assisted this organization as it receives funding from the UK.

This was the third chemical attack which the Western governments blamed on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad since the sarin attack in East Ghouta in August 2013. His government strongly denied any involvement.

In April 2017, another chemical incident, which the Russian and Syrian authorities explained as accidental, took place in a place called Khan Sheikhdoom.

The explanation given was that one of the missiles from a Russian plane hit a rebel warehouse storing chemical poisonous gas prohibited in warfare.

As punishment, the US was the only country taking action against Syria for the Khan Sheikdoom incident.

Here the US crossed its own red line by attacking Syria directly, albeit in a limited strike without the involvement of the UK and France.

But in response to the alleged April 7 Douma incident a coalition including the UK and France joined in the US attack, despite contested versions of what really happened notwithstanding the announcement by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that they would visit the Douma site(s) where the attacks allegedly took place.

Leftist claims under the spotlight

The claim often made by the left is that countries like the UK and France act like poodles when they assist the US in bombing sovereign countries, often in contravention of clearly defined international law.

This accusation the Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May strongly denied in parliament recently and insisted instead that the UK acts in its own best interests.

These interests include becoming a major supplier of arms to many countries in the Middle East as well as to the US.

This is in addition to lucrative investments by states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia giving the British economy some respite in recent years after the 2008 economic meltdown.

And when President Emmanual Macron was seen standing next to President Donald Trump during his recent trip to Washington and threatening to renegade on the Iran nuclear deal, the same accusation of being a poodle was leveled against him.

But it was France that took the leading role in the regime-change operation in Libya by recognizing the rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi where the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule had started.

As The New York Times reported on November 3, 2011 “France’s aggressive diplomatic stance is seen as a way of showing commitment to the popular uprisings and democratic changes in the Middle East and North Africa after Mr (Nicholas) Sarkozy admitted that Paris was too slow to recognize the strength of the revolutionary movements in Tunisia …and Egypt”.

We later learned that the late Libyan leader Gaddafi bankrolled Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential bid illegally; the issue has now gone to trial.

Libyan opposition groups promised the French oil company Total one third of all oil production if Gaddafi is removed, a claim which the company denied.

Others still saw this supposedly humanitarian intervention in Libya as a way for Sarkozy to boost his election chances as he was trailing other candidates in the race to be re- elected president in 2012.

The Arab Spring spreads to Syria

Protests in Syria started to intensify as soon as the US, UK, and France received the green light to create a no-fly zone in Libya, which turned into a regime change operation violating the letter and spirit of UN Security Council resolution 1973.

The fall of Gaddafi, which was portrayed as a success story in Western media kowtowing to their respective governments’ own self-serving narrative, was a huge boost to those in Syria who always wanted to overthrow the Assad dynasty.

This included groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that also saw their fortunes rising in Egypt with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

What is often omitted in commentary on Syria is that there was a pause between the time the first air strikes hit Libya in March 2011 and the first arms shipment to the rebels in Syria soon after Gaddafi’s lynching in October 2011.

This window of opportunity was used by countries like Turkey and Qatar which were closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood to persuade President Bashar Al Assad to leave power peacefully.

A similar call came also from President Obama in August 2011 but this was a miscalculation (apart from setting a red line for the use of chemical weapons) as it disincentivized the combatants from coming to the peace table, as we shall see later.

A question of pipelines

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met on April 4 to preserve Syrian sovereignty, but could there also be a question of pipeline access to Europe? [PPIO]

President Assad’s removal had been predicated on his opposition to a gas pipeline running from Qatar via Syria to the Mediterranean Sea to supply gas to European markets.

This pipeline had the backing of Qatar, Turkey, the US, UK and France but not Syria, Iraq and Iran which had already signed up to build another gas pipeline running from Iran via Syria through to the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The Obama administration saw the Qatar pipeline as a direct challenge to Russia’s own gas supply to Europe, and welcomed it.

Given Qatar’s geographical position, the gas-rich state can only supply gas via sea routes to Europe at the moment which is a more expensive option than through pipelines.

Its Far East markets are also coming under threat from Russian competition and customers like China have plans to develop their own shale gas fields, as the US has done in the past decade.

The Europeans due to environmental considerations have no plans to explore shale gas in the distant future.

Arms flow

Seymour Hersh wrote in the London Review of Books in January 2016 that the intelligence arm of the Pentagon became concerned early on in the Syria conflict that most of the arms that were flowing from the CIA through Turkey as well as from Qatar ended up in the hands of extremist Islamic groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Obama chose to ignore this data which triggered military-to-military intelligence exchanges between the Pentagon and counterparts in countries like Israel, Russia and Germany bypassing the White House.

The Pentagon claimed that this vital exchange saved Syria from collapsing into the same chaos we had seen in Libya and Iraq.

The same intelligence personnel at the Pentagon, such as Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, who saved Syria from falling into the hands of extremist Islamic groups went on to shape presidential candidate Donald Trump’s policy in the Middle East.

As the Syria conflict dragged on and hit a stalemate, Qatar was quietly being nudged aside by Saudi Arabia as the primary source of providing arms to the rebels notwithstanding they were Al Qaeda-affiliated, the Financial Times said on May 18, 2013.

What brought this about was President Obama’s second term win and the quest to find a solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the region – to develop nuclear power since the times of the Western-backed Shah in the mid-seventies.

Saudi Arabia and Israel strongly opposed this policy shift.

To undermine the thawing of relations between the State Department now headed by John Kerry and Tehran there is ample evidence to suggest Saudi Arabia was trying to force President Obama’s hand in Syria by instigating incidents of chemical warfare in view of his red line ultimatum to Assad in August 2012.

Attacking Syria at that point would have seriously jeopardized negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.

David Usborne wrote in the Independent on August 26, 2013 that the Saudis had accused Assad of using chemical weapons as early as February 2013.

It was none other than Prince Bandar bin Sultan – who directed military operations in Syria and was an implacable foe of Iran and staunch ally of the Bush family dynasty in the US – who pointed the finger at Assad.

On August 29, 2013, the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne reported a sarin gas attack five months earlier in the town of Khan Al Assal outside Aleppo.

The attack killed 16 government soldiers and 10 civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The UN chief prosecutor on Syria Carla Del Ponte in an interim report concluded that the rebels and not Assad may have been responsible for the attack.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry website and in regards to the missile type that was used in the Khan Al Assal attack, the warheads were only put into production in February 2013 – the same time Saudi Arabia was making accusations through Prince Bandar that Assad was using chemical weapons indiscriminately.

A few days earlier, UN experts were due to arrive to fully investigate this incident when the much larger Ghouta attack happened in August 2013.

As Oborne pointed out, it would have been high unlikely the government would have used poisonous gas when UN inspectors were due to investigate an incident which had all the hallmarks that it was perpetrated by the rebels.

France changes course

After President Obama and President Putin decided that the best course of action for Syria would be to destroy its chemical arsenal under the supervision of the OPCW, France was furious that it was not consulted.

It was the only country that was standing with the US in its bid to attack Syria after blaming it for the East Ghouta chemical attack while the UK parliament voted against military intervention in 2013.

It was at this point that France saw a similar opportunity which had existed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that both the US and UK were losing their influence in the Middle East.

A declassified CIA report compiled in 1970 but released in 2011 showed how French influence gathered pace from the late 1960s – its focus shifting from the Maghreb region in North Africa to oil-producing Arab countries like Iraq.

France, like the UK in 1974, had to reconsider its pro-Israel stance in order to win allies in the region.

Similarly during the start of the Obama presidency, numerous reports surfaced of the US pivoting to the Far East as evidenced in an article authored by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the authoritative Foreign Affairs magazine in 2009.

France saw this pivot as an opportunity to play a greater role in the Middle East.

Ostensibly, this role gained more impetus after France was not consulted on Syria’s chemical weapons destruction.

Unlike the UK that always allowed the US to take the lead role in the Middle East since the humiliation over the Suez affair in 1956, France always carved for itself an independent role to the consternation of its traditional allies as was the case when it opposed the illegal Iraq invasion in 2003.

Such independence was shown again when it sided with Saudi Arabia opposing an interim Iran nuclear deal in late 2013. But this time it also had support among neoconservatives in Washington and London who otherwise had been France’s main critics leading up to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Raphael Ahren in the Times of Israel (10/11/2013) noted that Saudi Arabia is the region’s foremost buyer of French arms:

“In light of the current economic situation in France, which really does not look so bright, these weapons deals are very important to the country.”

The Saudis were also investing heavily in French agricultural and food sectors hit hard by subsequent Russian retaliatory sanctions over Ukraine .The agricultural lobby has always been important in France for any government in power.

The Trump embrace

It is in this context one has to see the current French president warming up to President Trump like no other Western leader. President Trump brought Saudi Arabia back from the cold after Obama had marginalized Riyadh to some extent during his presidency.

Toward the final years of the Obama administration, the price of crude oil fell precipitously adding a further blow to the Saudis but since Trump came into the White House markets have seen the price go up steadily giving the Saudis additional economic clout that Western powers like France can benefit from.

During his press conference with Macron on April 24, Trump made it clear that Iran will not have access to the Mediterranean Sea. This helps explain why the US has stationed troops in northern Syria and wants Saudi Arabia and Gulf states now to foot the bill by deploying their own troops.

These are policy positions which Trump had expressed during his election campaign.

Trump says the US has since 2001 spent $7 trillion fighting wars in the Middle East yet has shown nothing for all this expenditure that could otherwise have been spent on building infrastructure at home. This is a sentiment often expressed by his nationalist support base.

In light of this, Syria has become a proxy play among major Western powers like France and the UK vying for influence and deal-making in the region, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries (after the rise of energy prices in 2004).

Meanwhile, the country’s suffering continues with no end in sight.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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