The airstrikes launched by the US, Britain and France in Damascus and nearby areas on Friday night have worsened the already volatile situation in Syria. The ‘precision’ strikes were purported to destroy Bashar Al Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons capability. The Anglo-French-American attacks were in response to the “chemical weapons attack” in Syria’s Douma. Curiously, the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was expected to start its work on 14 April to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma. Now the question is whether OPCW team will be allowed to carry out its task in the background of a series of airstrikes launched in the alleged sites. Observers said that these attacks have only disrupted the conduct of an impartial investigation. Meanwhile, it was reported that Syria’s air defence systems intercepted as many 71 out of more than a hundred cruise missiles.
Anatoly Antonov, Russian Ambassador in Washington, accused the Western powers of undertaking “a pre-planned scenario” in Syria. He even warned that “such actions will not remain without consequences. All responsibility for them rests upon Washington, London and Paris.” According to Dmitry Sablin, a Russian jurist, the strike on Syria sought to sabotage the OPCW investigation. He said: “… the strike on the very same day when the OPCW mission had to start its work says that nobody is interested in the truth. Just like with the Iraqi WDM, this is only a pretext. This has been done intentionally to disrupt the investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta,” Sablin added. Other Russian officials said that the US has the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the world and it “has no moral right to accuse other countries.”
Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Bashar al-Jaafari said at a UN Security Council meeting on Friday that his country had invited an OPCW fact-finding mission to come to Syria and visit the site of the alleged incident. We were ready to provide all necessary conditions for a transparent work of this mission. We expected this team to begin work within hours, he said. The Russian envoys argued that there was no ‘reliable evidence’ of any chemical attack. “Our specialists found no traces of the use of toxic agents. Douma’s residents know nothing about the attack. All information about the alleged attack comes from anti-government forces that are interested in such development of the situation,” adding that Russia has evidence indicating that “it was a provocation involving secret services of a number of countries,” they said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry questioned the claims of some agencies such as White Helmets, that the government used chemical weapons in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on April 7. The organization’s website posted information on April 8, stating that chlorine bombs were dropped to kill civilians. The Russian Defense Ministry pointed out that White Helmets were an “unreliable source, notorious for disseminating falsehoods.” The Russian agencies, meanwhile, examined this in Douma and found no traces of chemical weapons. It may be noted that this town became the last opposition stronghold in capital. The Syrian army recaptured the town in the days following the attack. Then the question raised was whether the army making headway in the operation had to resort to such a course of action. That the date chosen for the attacks also coincided with the arrival of the OPCW fact-finding mission in Syria raised many eyebrows. Is it that the three major powers had a skeleton in the cupboard?
Russia and Iran have openly condemned the attacks. There are indications that the ground situation in Syria would witness further escalation in the days to some. President Trump hailed the strikes carried out by the trio as “perfectly executed” and declared that the “Mission Accomplished.” But the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the Cold War was “back with a vengeance,” warning about the dangers of escalation over Syria. He said. “The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present.”
If the situation gets further worsened, Syria will witness another spell of disaster. Since the beginning of the war in 2011, more than half a million Syrians have been killed, nearly a million have been maimed, and 14 million – more than half the Syrian population – have been forced to flee their homes. As many as 6 million have moved abroad and registered as refugees. Now, in the seventh year of war, these 14 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country and abroad. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that nearly 5 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and nearly 7 million are internally displaced within Syria. About a million have sought asylum in Europe. Germany, which has more than 3 lakh applications, and Sweden with 100,000, are EU’s top receiving countries.
There has been a colossal loss of material resources over the last seven years – by way of damaging and destroying healthcare centres and hospitals, schools, utilities, and water and sanitation. Historic sites and market places have been reduced to ruins. Long years of civil war broke the base of business and social life in Syria. Consequently, millions scattered, creating the largest refugee and displacement crisis of the century half of people affected by the excruciating agonies were children. In a report, UNICEF estimated that 85 per cent of registered Syrian refugee children were living below the poverty line. Besides, 94 per cent of children below 5 living in host communities were “multi-dimensionally poor,” implying that they stood deprived of a minimum of two out of the five basic needs – education, health, water and sanitation, child protection and child safety.
The UNICEF assessment brought out earlier said that the Syrian refugee children and their families living in host communities were experiencing deprivations of multiple kinds. They included:
4 out of 10 Syrian families do not have enough food for an adequate diet, with an additional 26 per cent vulnerable to becoming food insecure; 45 per cent of Syrian 0-5 year olds have no access to proper health services including vaccinations and disability services; 38 per cent of Syrian children cannot go to school, due to distance, cost, lack of space etc as reasons for dropping out or not enrolling; For children aged 6-17 years, child labour and violence have become major challenges; 16 percent of Syrian children from 0-5 years are lacking a birth certificate, which will present challenges and expose them to additional risks as they grow up.
Do the three Western powers who unleashed airstrikes in Syria realise the gravity of this huge human insecurity of Syrians in the country and abroad? If the establishments they destroyed in Damascus were actually ‘chemical weapons’ factories (with potentially dangerous substances), what would have been its impact on the living beings and the environment? Will they not lead to another ‘chemical-industrial tragedy’ with huge loss of population? Why is that these three powers were so hurry to undertake the operations on 14 April – the day the OPCW fact-finding mission was set to start its investigation? The hands of US, UK and France are obviously tied with innumerable questions that have nothing to do with the Syrian government’s ‘chemical weapons capability.’ These questions have more to do with the larger geopolitical interests of these powers and their ‘prosperous’ military-industrial complex. Setbacks in international commodity trade are now compensated by booming weapons’ business. Trump’s ‘fair trade’ is nothing but a chimera for ‘free trade’ in defence and unfair practices in geopolitical circuit routes.
The author is Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at email@example.com