US Secretary of Defence James Mattis spoke before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on 12 April, telling it that the US administration had not decided on a response to the presumed chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.
A few days earlier, US President Donald Trump had warned Russia that US missiles could be fired at Syria and “will be coming nice and new and smart”.
Mattis assured the committee that the administration was weighing a response to the attack that would both prevent an escalation in the Middle East and send a strong message to the Syrian government that the United States would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against civilian populations.
He said that strategically speaking the administration would avoid any response, when and if it happened, from escalating out of control.
After the hearing, Mattis went to the White House to attend a meeting of the National Security Council.
According to a statement released after the meeting, the US administration announced that “no final decision has been made [on attacking Syria]” and that it was “continuing to assess intelligence and is engaged in conversations with our partners and allies.”
The statement added that Trump would be speaking with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Fewer than 36 hours after the release of this statement, the United States, France and Great Britain launched military attacks against military targets in Syria, one day after the arrival of a delegation from the International Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Damascus at the request of the Syrian government to investigate the suspected use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta on 7 April.
Whether or not by coincidence, the coordinated military attacks against Syria took place 24 hours before the convening of the 29th Arab Summit Meeting in Saudi Arabia on 15 April.
A few days earlier, some Arab Gulf rulers had expressed their support for any American attacks against the Al-Assad regime in Syria. When the three Western powers launched their attacks, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional grouping, expressed its support for the strikes.
The timing of the coordinated attacks against Syria was meant as a serious warning, not only to Damascus and Moscow, but also to Arab governments that the West was still capable of weighing in on the future of the Middle East despite the strategic gains that Russia under President Vladimir Putin has scored in the region, particularly Syria, since September 2015 when it decided to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict. In other words, the strategic message inherent in the coordinated Western strikes in the heart of the Middle East was not to depend on Russia in the future.
That message was received. Going over the remarks of the Arab heads of state before the inaugural session of the Arab Summit, it is quite clear that most of them steered away from the Syrian question save in very general terms, emphasising the need for a political solution in the light of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015.
No criticism or condemnation whatsoever of the violation of Syrian sovereignty was made, and there was no reference to the fact that the use of force by the three Western powers is in violation of the United Nations Charter.
On the contrary, some Arab countries went as far as to lay the responsibility for the attacks on the Syrian government, which they accused, without verifiable evidence, of using chemical weapons “against the Syrian people”.
This probably explains why the emphasis in the inaugural remarks at the summit was on the Palestinian question. The host country, Saudi Arabia, which became president-in-exercise of the Arab Summit until next year, called the 29th summit the “Al-Quds Summit” in a reference to Jerusalem.
This was an intelligent move meant to divert attention away from the Syrian question. The other question that concentrated minds at the summit was the situation in Yemen and the all-out Arab support for Saudi Arabia in dealing with missile threats from the Houthis in Yemen.
Another related matter of grave concern at the summit was Iranian meddling in Arab affairs. There was a near-consensus among the Arab delegates that something must be done to contain this meddling in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Gulf, according to the point of view of most of the Gulf countries and their Arab allies.
In this assessment, the position elaborated by these delegations is aligned with the positions of the United States concerning Iran and the need to contain its tentacular influence in the Middle East and the Gulf.
In the light of the above, it is safe to assume that the Arab Summit provided a certain amount of political cover for the military strikes against Syria on 14 April, and that this support would extend to any similar attacks in the future on the mere suspicion, however unfounded and unverified, of the utilisation by the Syrian government of chemical weapons.
In this context, it is interesting to note the US preliminary assessment of the results of the attacks against the alleged chemical weapons sites in Syria.
Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters after the end of the attacks that the strikes had been to the “heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons programme. However, Syria still retained a “residual” chemical weapons capability, he said.
The United States has warned that it could strike again if the Syrian army continues to employ chemical weapons on civilians. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said after the attacks that the United States was “locked and loaded” to attack again. How many times? Only time will tell.
The 29th Arab Summit has given carte blanche to Washington, London and Paris to strike again in Syria. This is a highly regrettable outcome, all the more so before the official results of the investigation by the International Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are released.
Many Arabs would have liked to see another name for this Arab Summit Meeting rather than associating the name of “Al-Quds” with it.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly