The debate over intervention in Syria
The death toll in Syria is now estimated at a horrifying 70,000, and the pressure on the United States to intervene is mounting, particularly with the suggestion that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons. Geoff Dyer in Washington and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut join Gideon Rachman to discuss where the debate over Western intervention in Syria stands.
A tale of two Middle East anniversaries
March 15 marks the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria and on March 20 it will have been a decade since the start of the Iraq war, a conflict that still reverberates around the region and the world. Abigail Fielding-Smith, FT correspondent in Damascus; David Gardner, senior international affairs commentator, and Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor, join Shawn Donnan.
Israeli soldiers stand guard at an army post in the annexed Golan Heights on January 31 (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Reports that Wednesday’s Israeli air strike somewhere near Syria’s border with Lebanon was on an arms convoy destined for Hizbollah have been denied – sort of – by the Syrian regime and its paramilitary Lebanese ally.
Throughout Wednesday, Hizbollah, normally prodigious in its denunciations of any and all Israeli aggression on its al-Manar television station, maintained the stoniest of silences. Today, al-Manar moved swiftly to endorse the account given by Syria’s state news agency: that Israeli warplanes had hit a military research facility in Jamraya, near Damascus.
There is no cast-iron corroboration of anything at this stage. Israel is saying nothing. But beyond fuelling fears that Syria’s civil war will spread, Israel’s actions have led to some interesting statements. Read more
Friday’s events from the World Economic Forum feature an address by Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, and sessions looking at the challenges faced by, and presented by, the fast-changing Arab world. Reports from FT writers in Davos and by Ben Fenton, Lina Saigol and Lindsay Whipp in London
17.03: The Davos Live Blog is closing down now but for more reading and insight on today’s events, please visit the FT’s in depth page on the World Economic Forum.
16.41: Gideon Rachman, titular proprietor of this blog, has written his surmise from the earlier session on Syria.
16.16: Asked by the Amercian moderator of his panel session about corruption and banking regulation, Nigeria’s central bank governor Sanusi displays a little frustration:
He said: “We are the only country which has taken people out of banks and put them in jail. No bankers in your countries have gone to jail.”
16.12: Martin Wolf has recorded his view on the politics and economics at play in a “low-intensity” Davos this year:
As if concerns over whether Syria’s chemical weapons might fall into the wrong hands amid the increasingly violent civil war weren’t enough to worry about, behind the scenes nuclear experts are now expressing fresh fears over the security of what may be 50 tonnes of unenriched uranium in the country.
As the FT’s diplomatic editor James Blitz reported on Wednesday, concerns centre on the whereabouts of this as yet unconfirmed stash. It is believed by some to have been meant for Syria’s supposed al-Kibar nuclear facility – before Israel destroyed it in a secret mission back in September 2007, a mission that David Makovsky dissected in the New Yorker last September.
For its part, Syria has always denied ever having a nuclear programme. So, did it have one or not? Below are some interesting articles that wade into these extremely murky waters. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Everybody agrees that economic and political power is moving east. Barack Obama has constructed a whole new foreign policy around this theory – the “pivot to Asia”. But, as I assemble my annual list of the five most important events of the year, it is striking how events in Europe and the Middle East still dominate.
There is little doubt that the period since November has seen many setbacks for Assad, not the least of which has been the growing co-ordinatiuon – and international recognition – of the opposition. But some senior military and political figures in the Middle East and in Britain remain cautious. Read more
Since the start of this month, there has been a spate of stories in the western media about the possibility that the Assad regime is about to use chemical weapons against rebel forces in Syria. The stories – most of which have been briefed by US intelligence officials to the American print and broadcast media – have been alarming. As the Assad regime comes under increasing pressure, there are fears that it might use some of its stocks of sarin in a last-ditch demonstration that it is determined to hang onto power. The Obama administration has again asserted that it would see the use of such weapons as the crossing of a red line that triggers US intervention in the conflict.
Anyone trying to bring together the steady stream of news stories on this issue is left with a somewhat murky picture. Some have suggested that the military has loaded chemical weapons into bombs and is awaiting the order from the regime to drop them on rebel groups.
Others have suggested that the precursors for sarin gas have been mixed and could be ready for use.
There is also one report that goes in the other direction and suggests the fears of US intelligence have eased.
What are we to make of it all ? The fact that Syria possesses chemical – and possibly biological – weapons is not in doubt. After years of obfuscation, the regime admitted to having chemical weapons stocks last summer. Most academic opinion is in no doubt that Syria possesses one of the largest arsenals in the world, one that was developed as a strategic deterrent against Israel. Read more
Missing: Jihad Makdissi (Getty)
Every defection, or assumed defection, from the Syrian regime heartens its opponents and gives fresh impetus to the “this is a big blow to Bashar al-Assad” comments from western capitals desperate for a collapse of the government – and desperate not to be forced into military intervention to get rid of it.
But defections often come with a measure of disinformation, which is designed to protect the official or general until he or she is in safe hands and properly debriefed by whichever intelligence service assisted him. Families back home also have to be protected because there is no limit to the cruelty that could be inflicted on relatives of a defector.
So it is no surprise that the whereabouts of Jihad Makdissi, the suave, English-speaking mouthpiece of the foreign ministry, are still a mystery two days after the first report of his departure from Damascus emerged. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
The calls for “something to be done” about Syria are getting louder in the US and Europe – so loud that they may soon be heeded. The first step, which could come fairly quickly, would be to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons. The second, which is under active consideration, would be to establish a no-fly zone.