A complicated game-changer


United States president Barack Obama has promised a vigorous investigation into reports that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, warning that proof of such action could be a “game-changer” for Washington’s approach to the conflict. Last week, the US followed Britain, Israel and France in declaring that it had some evidence that forces loyal to Assad used chemical agents, probably the nerve gas agent Sarin, near Aleppo last month.

Foreign policy hawks such as Republican senator John McCain seized on the reports, reminding Obama that he has identified the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that Assad must not cross without facing a serious response from Washington. Such critics of the White House, who have long advocated greater military involvement in the Syrian conflict, warn that if Obama fails to take action, his threats will appear empty not only to Assad but to other hostile regimes in Iran and North Korea.

Obama insists that it is too early to say if Assad has indeed crossed the “red line” of chemical weapons use. Mindful of the false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the Iraq war a decade ago, the president is insisting on “confirmation and strong evidence”. The United Nations has already launched an investigation – at the Assad regime’s request and with the support of Russia, a key ally of Damascus – into the alleged use of chemical weapons. Britain and France want the UN investigation expanded to include other alleged chemical weapons use by the regime. Despite inviting the weapons inspectors into the country, Assad has been frustrating their progress.

The use of chemical weapons is a war crime that would take Assad past a new barrier of brutality in a two-year conflict that has already killed an estimated 70,000 Syrians and left millions more displaced. Western policy options are complicated, however, by the fractured nature of the opposition and fears that, if heavy weapons are supplied to the rebels, some of whom are Islamist extremists, they could some day be used against the West itself. Advocates of intervention argue that, given that Assad is well supplied with weapons from Russia, China and Iran and the Islamist opposition receives generous support from conservative Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the western powers must arm the more moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army to tip the balance in their favour.

UN officials continue to advocate for a negotiated settlement based on a plan agreed in Geneva last year, supported by Russia and China, which calls for a ceasefire, the formation of a transitional government and elections. Any investigation into chemical weapons use will take weeks, a period that could offer an opportunity for renewed diplomatic activity.

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