Exclusive: Ironically, the biggest threat to plans for destroying the Syrian government’s chemical weapons may come from Syrian rebels if they balk at a ceasefire and target UN inspectors removing poison gas canisters, a possibility that the rebels may hope would put a U.S. military strike back on the table, says Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The Syrian rebels, already angry over the postponed U.S. military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s government, appear determined to obstruct peace talks and thus may be wielding what amounts to a veto against plans to dismantle Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, a process that would be fraught with danger if there is no cease-fire.
While it might seem counterintuitive for the rebels to undercut an international plan to eliminate the government’s poison gas, there is logic to the rebels’ position, in that their goal is the overthrow of Assad, not simply removing one category of weapon – and indeed one whose primary value may be that it makes a U.S. military intervention against Assad more likely.
Many rebels were ecstatic over the U.S. military threats that followed the disputed Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus because the expected U.S. missile strikes held the potential of not just degrading Assad’s military capabilities but tipping the balance in favor of the rebels, if not leading to the collapse of the regime.
So, the disappointed rebels have shown no indication that they are willing to participate in U.S.-Russian-sponsored peace talks in Geneva that amount to a prerequisite for a successful dismantling of the Syrian government’s CW arsenal. Though the Assad regime has agreed to send negotiators to Geneva, the rebels have balked despite appeals from the United States.
Part of the rebels’ inability to join the talks derives from the fact that thousands of radical jihadists have poured into Syria from around the Middle East – bolstering the hard-line and pro-al-Qaeda factions already there – meaning that the more moderate rebel groups may no longer have effective control of the movement.
Some of these Sunni extremists are determined not only to oust Assad but to crush the Alawite and Christian communities that have been the backbone of his generally secular regime. Some Sunni extremists have even talked about exterminating the Alawites, who are a branch of Shia Islam and thus are seen as allies of Shiite-ruled Iran.
In other words, the more moderate rebels have become captives to the extremists – and thus prospects for peace talks to first get a ceasefire and then work on a more equitable power-sharing arrangement for the majority Sunnis remain dim. The failure of the U.S. mainstream news media to state this reality forthrightly is another complicating factor.
As recently as late July, the U.S. press did report that the rebels were the ones refusing to join peace talks – as the insurgents laid down a series of preconditions including that they first must be on the cusp of military victory. But that narrative has been bent in recent weeks by the U.S. news media and various pundits to shift the blame onto Assad.
It is now common in Official Washington for government officials, think tank “experts” and prominent columnists to pontificate about this alternative reality which holds that Assad won’t agree to negotiate. Some have suggested that the U.S. military strike – besides punishing Assad for his alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 – is needed to drive him to the bargaining table. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Tell Kristof to Stop Lying about Syria.”]
Making the US Side Look Good
This false narrative fits with the preferred view of America as always being on the side of peace and favoring non-violent solutions to problems. To resolve the cognitive dissonance of the U.S. government now shipping arms to the side in a conflict that refuses to engage in peace talks, the answer is to simply revise the storyline by changing what had been acknowledged facts.
These days, when the actual reality is occasionally confronted in the mainstream press or among the talking heads of pundit world, it must be framed as a claim by the Russians or the Syrian government, not something to be believed.
For instance, the New York Times on Thursday attributed an explanation for the lack of peace negotiations to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is quoted as saying that the meeting on chemical weapons “in Geneva would also provide an opportunity to discuss reviving the stalled effort he and [Secretary of State John] Kerry announced in Moscow in May to organize an international conference between Syria’s government and rebel forces aimed at finding a political resolution to the civil war.
“He [Lavrov] said Syria’s government had agreed to attend those talks but the United States and other nations had failed to persuade ‘the irreconcilable Syrian opposition’ to do so.”
However, this point is not simply some claim by a self-interested Russian diplomat. It was reported in real time by New York Times correspondents in the field from May to July. Back then it was acknowledged that Assad had agreed to participate in the Geneva peace talks but that the opposition was refusing to attend.
On July 31, for example, Ben Hubbard of the New York Times reported that “the new conditions, made by the president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, … reflected a significant hardening of his position. He said that the opposition would not negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad or ‘his clique’ and that talks could begin only when the military situation in Syria was positive for rebel forces.”
The opposition has spelled out other preconditions, including the need for the United States to supply the rebels with more sophisticated weapons and a demand that Assad’s Lebanese Hezbollah allies withdraw from Syria. The most recent excuse for the rebels not going to Geneva was the dispute over Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. But that once-accepted history now appears to be inconvenient for the U.S. government and the mainstream news media. So it is altered – or portrayed as uncertain.
Nevertheless, the reality of the rebels continuing to obstruct the peace talks is now reemerging as a threat to the success of any plan for the Syrian government to turn over and destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles.
The idea of identifying the locations where the poison gas is stored and sending international inspectors to remove the material for destruction could invite rebel jihadists to launch attacks with the goal of intercepting the chemical weapons for use against government troops or for the extermination of Alawite and Christian communities. There have already been reports from Syria that some rebel units have obtained chemical weapons either from overrunning government bases or from outside sources. I’m told that U.S. intelligence analysts believe there may be some truth to those reports.
The rebels also stand to lose if the plan for destroying the Syrian government’s chemical weapons succeeds – because that would eliminate the most likely provocation for the U.S. military to intervene on the side of the rebels.
So, if negotiations over the Syrian government surrendering its stockpiles appear to be making progress, the rebels could exert something of a veto by making it too dangerous for international inspectors to do the job of removing the weapons from secure facilities and moving them by truck or other means to sites where the weapons can be destroyed.
By sabotaging that process – and relying on the bias of the U.S. mainstream media to frame the story in a way to put the onus on Assad and the Russians – the rebels could put the possibility of a devastating U.S. military strike back on the table.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.