US Gambles on Syria with Empty Hand

By Finian Cunningham

There’s other players at the table too. The players are holding cards close to their chest, eyes are flitting to see who’s bluffing, and the stakes seem to be getting higher and higher. The latter is certainly not an empty bluff, given the powder-keg state of the Middle East and the danger for not just an all-out regional war, but a global conflagration involving nuclear weapons.

Then comes a bit of entertainment to momentarily lighten the mood around the table. One of the most truculent voices in Washington, the hawkish Republican Senator John McCain was caught playing an actual game of poker on his iPhone during Congressional hearings this week.

Yes, US lawmakers are deciding on whether their country will go ahead with plans to attack Syria and by doing so possibly ignite World War III. But McCain, who has been calling for a full-scale US intervention in Syria, was more interested in twiddling on his gadget. The Senator was unapologetic about being photographed. “I lost,” he later joked.

But back to the serious matter in hand. As it turns out, the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee gave its backing to President Obama’s resolution for a 90-day period of military strikes on Syria. A full Congress vote is expected next Monday.

The snapshot of McCain playing a game during Congressional debate on a matter of war and peace speaks volumes. For a start, the debate among US lawmakers is, to put it bluntly, irrelevant. Senior politicians within the American establishment already know that the US is going to launch an attack on Syria in the coming days whether the House of Representatives or the Senate vote Yes or No. President Obama has already given notice that, as Commander-in-Chief, he has the authority to give the orders and he says he’s going to do just that. White House
officials have also been briefing US media outlets that the president intends to go to war.

The New York Times reported that Senator McCain and another hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham, were afforded a private meeting with Obama in the White House at the start of this week. The senators later told the media that they were given assurances from Obama that “a serious” military campaign was on the cards in Syria. So, it is little wonder that McCain found the proceedings in Congress boring and sought light relief with a game of poker. He thinks he knows the outcome already.

But the poker analogy goes much further. The Americans, in general, are in danger of overplaying their hand. The White House, State Department and Pentagon seem to be gambling everything over their claims that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is guilty of using chemical weapons of mass destruction against its own people.

Speaking before the Senate this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “As we debate, the world is watching and the world is wondering, not whether Assad’s regime actually did this. The world is wondering whether the United States of America is going to consent through silence to stand aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.”

Based on allegedly classified US intelligence, Washington is claiming that it is “certain” that Assad’s forces “murdered 1,429 people” in an attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August. There is international consensus that a deadly incident involving toxic chemicals did take place and that several hundred people were killed.

However, the full circumstances are not conclusive. A United Nations inspection team, led by Swedish scientists Ake Sellstrom, has yet to complete its investigation. The results of that analysis are expected in the next two weeks.

Kerry pushed more money on to the table when he invoked a grandiloquent, and fanciful, sweep of history. He told the Senate that in 100 years of international prohibition against chemical weapons, there have only been three tyrants to have used them: Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and now Bashar al-Assad. The gambit may have played well in the US Senate, but not to anyone with a sound sense of history.

Did Winston Churchill not use chemical weapons to gas Palestinians during the 1920s? What about the US dropping millions of litres of Agent Orange on Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s, the birth deformities from which are still plaguing that population? During its illegal occupation of Iraq (2003-12), US forces used White Phosphorus and depleted uranium on Fallujah and other cities on a massive scale whose toxic legacy persists with shockingly high rates of cancer among the civilian population. America’s ally Israel has also used White Phosphorus, supplied by the US, against Palestinian civilians during its Operation Cast Lead onslaught on Gaza in 2009.

The mention of Saddam Hussein was a particular bad gaffe by Kerry, given that recent declassified CIA files and testimony from retired US military officers show that the Americans colluded with the former Iraqi dictator in his use of Sarin and other chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians during the 1980-88 war, as well as against Kurdish civilians at Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 were killed. The Americans gave Saddam the chemical materials and the satellite coordinates for the attacks, and rewarded the dictator for his efficiency with increased commercial investment and military aid – until they eventually discarded him down during the First and Second Gulf Wars.

In sum, Kerry overplayed. Maybe nerves or lies got the better of him, and he feigned the bravado a little too much.

Across the poker table, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be playing a cooler, smarter game. Russia has been pilloried by Washington and its Western allies for blocking sanctions against the Syrian government at the United Nations Security Council. The West accuses Moscow of blindly supporting its Cold War-era ally in Damascus, even when the latter has allegedly committed crimes against humanity as in the purported latest incident of chemical weapons use on 21 August.

But the Russian leader hasn’t flinched, despite Western charges that are bordering on slander. The latest accusation came from US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who told a Senate hearing this week that Russia has supplied Syria with chemical weapons and by implication is complicit in the mass murder of civilians. A Russian government spokesman firmly denied the claim and countered that Hagel was telling “blatant lies”.

Not to be ruffled, Putin played a deft move this week when he said in a media interview that he was prepared to with-hold Russia’s veto and back UN Security Council action against Syria – if Washington presented its secret evidence against Assad over the chemical weapons allegations.

The Russian president also reiterated the internationally binding criterion, which stipulates that the only legally acceptable framework for a military attack on Syria was through the unanimous consent of the UN Security Council. Any other military action against Syria – in particular the unilateral strike being proposed by Washington – is therefore an act of aggression. That criterion is universally recognized, except it seems by the arrogant Americans.

Therefore, the Americans have a choice: either present your supposedly incriminating evidence against the Syrian government, or proceed with your plans and face international wrath for committing the supreme crime of aggression.

That may seem like a high-stakes gambit by Putin. For if he is presented with smoking-gun intelligence, which the Americans claim they have, then Russia is on record as thus being obliged to consent to military attack on Syria. Such a contingency would seem inconceivable given the historic alliance between the two countries and the fact that Syria provides the only Mediterranean navy base for Russia in the port city of Tartus.

Moreover, Putin surely realizes that the Western agenda towards Syria has got nothing to do with humanitarian or legal principles, partly because of the flagrant hypocrisy of American crimes with chemical weapons, as mentioned above.

The real Western agenda is to cover their regime-change objective with a pretext of intervention over alleged chemical weapons and “responsibility to protect civilians”. That cynical agenda extends beyond Syria. It is part of a long-term US-led geopolitical sweep of attempting to install pro-Western pliant regimes across the oil and gas-rich South Asia, Middle East and North Africa regions. This geopolitical campaign began with Afghanistan and Iraq under the cover of 9/11 and the “war on terror”. It has seen the US and its capitalist allies penetrating into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Cote D’Ivoire and Mali, among other places. The toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 is also part of this rolling regime change. Currently, Syria is in the cross-hairs with a Western-fomented covert war that began in March 2011 involving Al Qaeda mercenaries recruited from more than 30 countries, backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and, ironically, Israel.

Ultimately, this Western “great game” is aimed at undermining Syria’s other strategic allies: Iran, Russia and China. We can be sure that Russian geopolitical analysis is well aware of this dynamic. And given this, it may seem reckless of President Putin to lend his consent in principle to a military sanction against Syria through the auspices of the UN Security Council. Recall, Putin is in effect saying to the Americans and their Western allies, Britain and France: OK, you get legally entitled action to strike against Syria, with my consent. But you must first present the damning evidence against Syria over the chemical weapons.

Now here’s the tantalizing twist. The Americans and their allies – who have been shouting from the rooftops that Assad used chemical weapons – do not, in the final showdown, have any evidence. Yes, that’s right, the US, Britain and France have spent months and weeks building a case against the Syrian government accusing it of using chemical weapons – but they do not have a shred of evidence. In other words, despite the high stakes of American warships, submarines and cruise missiles bristling off the coast of Syria, and all the bombast and bluster from the White House and in Congress this week, when the chips are down, Washington’s poker hand is empty.

Washington is wildly overplaying its hand, while Russia knows deep down that it has the winning ace. What is that ace? The ace is the simple truth of the matter. Washington holds its hand close to its chest, saying (bluffing) that it has secret trump cards to prove its claims against Assad and thereby give itself the moral authority to launch a war. But, despite the facial assurance, the only cards Washington and its allies hold are deuces.

Here is a suite of cards that calls the American bluff.

Firstly, the only hard, independently verifiable, evidence to date for the use of chemical weapons in Syria shows that the perpetrators are the Western-backed Al Qaeda-linked mercenaries. Before the latest incident near Damascus on 21 August, the previous alleged chemical gas atrocity was in the northern village of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, on 19 March, which killed 26 people and injured more than 80. As with the recent attack near Damascus, the Western governments claimed with certainty that the Assad forces carried out the killings in Khan al-Assal.

However, an official Russian report presented to the United Nations General Secretariat in July and based on independently verifiable evidence, concluded that it was the Western-backed militants who perpetrated the Khan al-Assal attack. This week, the Russian government released evidence more widely from that same report, which shows that the militants used improvised rockets and chemical warheads in that incident. That flatly contradicts claims made by President Obama and John Kerry in Congress “that only the Syrian regime could possess the weaponry”. If the Western-backed militants used deadly chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal, then they could have used them again in Damascus.

Secondly, militants belonging to the Al Nusra Front – the main Jihadist group fighting in Syria – were arrested back in May by Turkish police in possession of the deadly nerve agent Sarin. Turkish media, including the daily Zaman, reported that 12 militants were caught with 2kg of the chemical in the southern Turk city of Adana. It is believed that the group mishandled the Sarin and members ended up in hospital where they were arrested. It is understood that the suspects are still in custody, although the Turk government of Recep Erdogan has reportedly blocked further details, including requests for information from the Russian foreign ministry. This week a former city councilor in Adana, Mohamed Gunes, claimed that the same militant group carried out the attack in Damascus with the chemicals routed through Adana.

Thirdly, the Western-backed militants in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta admitted responsibility for the attack that occurred on 21 August. The militants and their families told Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak that they had received the toxic materials from Saudi Arabia.

The militants said that they were not given full details or instructions by the Saudis on how to deploy the chemicals and it appears that the rockets were misfired. In a related incident, the same report told how 12 militants in Ghouta were killed accidentally in a storage tunnel when chemicals began leaking.

Fourthly, reliable sources, such as political analyst Christof Lehmann at nsnbc International, were warning as far back as July that a major atrocity – a game-changing event – was being planned by Western intelligence and Saudi and Turk counterparts involving their proxy mercenaries in Syria and the use of chemical weapons. The false flag event was aimed at pinning the blame on the Syrian government and thereby triggering the red line that President Obama had previously warned would precipitate US overt military intervention.

A fifth card is that of intercepted emails from American and British military officers and contractors published in separate reports in Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. The hacked emails purport to show that Washington not only knew that the anti-government militants possessed chemical weapons, but that senior figures in American government sanctioned a false flag event. The Daily Telegraph report this week cites intelligence officer, US Army Colonel Anthony J MacDonald, as bragging about contriving the atrocity in Damascus. The Daily Mail report was published back in January, and it has since been erased from the newspaper’s website. It claimed that British defense contractors with the firm, Britam, disclosed in hacked emails that White House officials approved of a false flag involving chemical weapons.

The above does not presume to be a comprehensive suite of evidence. No doubt, more information will emerge from the UN inspectors and other sources. But the above list presents a substantially more convincing alternative case than what the US, British and French governments have so far provided. Their case relies on unverifiable YouTube videos, classified, non-public information, alleged phone intercepts (of the Colin Powell variety) and heavy use of bombastic assertion.

By contrast, the alternative case, as argued by Syria and Russia among others, is based on circumstantial evidence, forensic details, confession and a compelling motive.

Russia’s intelligence has probably a lot more up its sleeve in terms of incriminating evidence about what really happened on the 21 August and who really authored and perpetrated the atrocity. But it is safe to conclude for now that it wasn’t the Syrian government. Putin no doubt knows that to a certainty. That is why he is playing cool in the game of poker over Syria with the West.

The bets are that Putin has the ace of truth, and the West is bluffing on an empty, bogus hand. If Washington proceeds with its unilateral military plans against Syria, it will be damned openly and fully with the supreme crime of aggression.

As President Obama says: “America’s credibility is on the line”. Indeed, and it’s time for America to fold.

Finian Cunningham, originally from Belfast, Ireland, was born in 1963. He is a prominent expert in international affairs. The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted human rights violations by the Western-backed regime. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in journalism. He co-hosts a weekly current affairs programme, Sunday at 3pm GMT on Bandung Radio

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