Syria

Obama’s political gamble on Syria
President Barack Obama’s decision to consult Congress before launching any military strikes on Syria came as a surprise to friend and foe alike. How is this political gamble likely to work out and what are the implications for the crisis in Syria and and for the use of American power around the world? Gideon Rachman is joined by James Blitz, diplomatic editor and Richard McGregor, Washington bureau chief, to discuss

Roula Khalaf

As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.

The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. Read more

Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.

July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.

August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

If you are going to intervene in a foreign country, it helps to know what you want to happen. But on Egypt – and Syria, too – western policy is buffeted by a mass of conflicting instincts. The US and the EU are pro-democracy but anti-Islamist; pro-stability but anti-crackdown; opposed both to jihadists and to their enemies in the security state. No wonder that the Arab world is confused. The one thing that unites the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood is that they both claim to have been betrayed by the US. Read more

Daniel Dombey

Turkish actors Kivanc Tatlitug (L) and Songul Oden (R) (Getty)

It looks like the unkindest cut of all. After years in which the march of Turkish soap operas across the Middle East has been hailed as proof of Ankara’s soft power in the Arab world, someone wants to pull the plug.

The post-coup government in Egypt, which is barely on talking terms with Turkey, appears to be encouraging a boycott of Turkish soaps, a move that not only hits a showpiece cultural export but comes at a time when Ankara is confronting a host of problems in the Middle East.

The glory days of August 2011, when prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was greeted by thousands of sympathisers at Cairo airport, seem very far away. Indeed the upheaval in the Arab world, which once seemed set to bolster Turkey’s influence, is turning into a serious headache on issues ranging from soap operas to shootings. Read more

David Gardner

Residents gather at the site of an explosion in Beirut's southern suburbs, stronghold of Hizbollah, July 9, 2013. AFP/Getty

Hizbollah has brushed off the European Union’s decision on Monday to blacklist its “military wing” as a terrorist organisation. Well, it would, wouldn’t it.

The Shia paramilitary group issued the mandatory rhetorical broadside. “It looks as if the decision was written by American hands and with Israeli ink”, it said, to which “the EU only had to add its signature”.

In fact, as Hizbollah would surely know, it takes a great deal more than that for the EU’s 28 member-states to reach a consensus on anything at all. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
Should the west arm the Syrian rebels? That is the issue of the day in Washington, London and at the Group of Eight summit. But behind this debate lies a bigger question. Can western powers continue to shape the future of the Middle East as they have for the past century?

Roula Khalaf

John Kerry and William Hague discuss Syria (Getty)

It’s comforting to see that there is a flurry of diplomacy on Syria. But it not the Geneva peace conference sponsored by the US and Russia that had been expected this month. The conference plan has run into a few problems, including that the regime’s gains on the ground have made it even less likely that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power to a transitional government, which is supposed to be the basis of peace negotiations. There’s now talk that the conference could take place in early July, starting just before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Or it might be delayed until the end of the summer. Or it might never happen. Read more

David Gardner

A view of Qusair (AP)

It would seem that Qusair, the rebel-held town astride the strategic corridor between Homs and the northeast Lebanese border, has fallen to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian state media, and al-Manar, the TV station of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia allied to the Assads, have made the claim. But the situation on the ground was looking desperate for the rebels, despite their attempts to resupply the city. And officials in Damascus have been contacting journalists in the region since late last week, confident they could lay on a propaganda coup once this now emblematic town fell.

Here are some preliminary thoughts on the significance of this battle:

* The fall of al-Qusair is a serious blow to the rebels’ disparate forces. It cuts one of their supply lines from Lebanon to Homs; it restores government control over the Damascus-to-Aleppo highway; and, critically, it reconnects the capital to the north-west coast, the heartland of the Alawite minority around which the Assad clan has built its dictatorship and security state; Read more

James Blitz

Qusair, in Homs Province (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a week of intense diplomatic and military activity over Syria. At the end of it, anyone analysing the situation has much new detail to reflect on. The Assad regime is making considerable advances on the ground. The EU arms embargo on Syria has been amended, allowing Britain and France to supply weapons to parts of the Syrian opposition at some future date if they wish. Russia seems to be pressing ahead with the provision of the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian regime, alarming the Israelis. Meanwhile diplomacy over a planned peace conference to try and bring an end to the civil war presses ahead – albeit with deep scepticism from many diplomats about the chance of success.

What should we make of all these events? After conversations with several western diplomats analysing the situation, one can pick out various strands that help organise one’s assessment of where things stand. Read more