Syria attack may prove to be a turning point

Greater intervention could follow if regime found to be behind massacre

Lebanese and Syrian civilians take part in a candlelight vigil in solidarity with Syrian civilians killed by a gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus, in front of the offices of the UN headquarters in Beirut. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Lebanese and Syrian civilians take part in a candlelight vigil in solidarity with Syrian civilians killed by a gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus, in front of the offices of the UN headquarters in Beirut. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

 

Harrowing reports of hundreds of people killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held Damascus suburb have reignited the uneasy debate over foreign intervention in Syria.

The apparent scale of this week’s attack may prove a turning point for greater intervention if the Assad regime is found to be responsible. There have been repeated allegations that chemical weapons were being used in Syria’s war. The UN has said that any use of chemical weapons by any side, under any circumstances, would violate international humanitarian law.

The nightmarish scenes from Ghouta, a rebel stronghold that the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been fighting to take back for more than 12 months, come exactly a year after US president Barack Obama warned that it would be a “red line” for his administration if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised”, That, he said, would have “enormous consequences”.


Intervention
Last month the Pentagon released a list of possible operations it would launch if ordered to intervene in Syria. These included plans to train and arm rebel groups, conduct air strikes, enforce a no-fly zone, track down chemical weapons, and establish buffer zones.

But Obama is reluctant to embroil US forces in a new war after withdrawing troops from Iraq and scaling back involvement in Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, and before the attack on Ghouta, Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Obama administration was opposed to even limited intervention in Syria because it believed rebels battling Assad wouldn’t support American interests if they came to power.

Dempsey noted that the US military was capable of neutralising Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the war towards the opposition but he warned that such an approach would plunge Washington into the war without offering any strategy for ending what has become an increasingly factionalised, sectarian conflict.


Muted reaction
Reaction from Washington in recent days has been muted, focusing on the need to investigate the Ghouta attack but not mentioning the possible consequences if it is confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime there. More bullish statements have emanated from Europe.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, whose government – and Britain’s – has been one of Europe’s strongest advocates for arming the rebels, yesterday talked of a possible use of force against the Assad regime if allegations of its use of chemical weapons are proved.

“There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community, but there is no question of sending troops on the ground,” he told a French TV network, raising the prospect of air strikes, as happened during the Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2011. If the UN Security Council could not make a decision, one would have to be taken “in other ways”, he said.

Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose Nato-aligned government has sided with the Syrian opposition from early in the uprising, said the apparent gas attack crossed “all red lines” and he criticised the inaction of the Security Council which he said “has not even been able to take a decision”.

On Wednesday, the Security Council expressed “strong concern” and demanded more “clarity” on the use of chemical weapons. Russia and China, both allies of Assad, insisted on diluting a tougher stance sought by the US, UK, France and 32 other member states that called on a UN investigative team already in Damascus to be granted immediate access to the site of the massacre in Ghouta, and to be freely allowed to conduct their inquiries. Moscow and Beijing have backed Assad throughout almost three years of war, consistently vetoing stronger action against his regime at the Security Council. As happened after previous atrocities in Syria, the Russian foreign ministry has accused rebels of staging the Ghouta massacre to trigger intervention, a claim echoed by Syrian officials.


‘What really happened’
China issued a statement saying it opposed the use of chemical weapons but called for the UN team to “fully consult with the Syrian government and maintain an objective, impartial and professional stance, to ascertain what really happened”.

Much hinges on how much latitude the Assad regime allows the UN team to carry out their investigation. Previous UN missions in Syria have faced restrictions. The UN inspectors currently inside Syria to look into earlier claims of chemical weapons use have been staying just a few kilometres from Ghouta, but they have not yet been given access.

The area was reportedly still being bombed by regime forces yesterday.

If the Assad regime “has nothing to reproach itself with”, it should let the UN team investigate the alleged attack, Fabius said.

“If the Syrians refuse, that means they have been caught red-handed,” he added.