Q&A: What next for Syria?

Would military action be legal, what is the United Nation's role and what happens next?

UN joint special representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi: insists any military strike needs UN security council approval. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

UN joint special representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi: insists any military strike needs UN security council approval. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

 

Washington and London seem to be reluctant to wait for the UN weapons inspectors to publish a report. US and British officials are suggesting that air strikes could come within days. So why the hurry?

One possible explanation is that western capitals want the punishment to follow soon after the alleged crime, so that they are tightly bound in the eyes of public opinion and the Assad regime.

The US and UK are anxious to make clear that this is a response to a particular event, not an open-ended intervention.

Another possibility is that the allies want to hit their targets before they disperse, but that appears less convincing.

This attack has been abundantly telegraphed in advance giving the regime plenty of time to hide its equipment and its commanders, especially as US briefers have apparently been telling journalists the sorts of targets they will be after.
Would a military attack be legal?
The status of a punitive strike in these circumstances is in dispute. Advocates of military action point to the 1993 chemical weapons convention, prohibiting their production or use, but Syria is not a signatory. The convention has enough global support to make the argument that it is part of international customary law, but that argument would presumably be stronger with a UN security council ruling.

Similarly, there is the principle of the international community’s “responsibility to protect” civilian populations if state governments fail. That was adopted at the 2005 UN world summit but it states that such outside intervention should be “through the security council in accordance with the UN charter”.


Why is the UK taking the case to the UN security council and what is likely to happen there?
Until Tuesday, British officials were adamant there was such a clear-cut case for intervention that there was no need to seek approval at the security council. Yesterday morning, that position was stood on its head. One possible reason for the U-turn is the legal difficulties outlined. Another could be political: it was the price for Labour acquiescence in military action in today’s vote in the UK parliament.

The UK-sponsored resolution, we are told, will blame the Assad regime for the August 21st chemical attack and call for a mandate for “all necessary measures” to protect the civilian population. It would be surprising if yesterday’s meeting of the five permanent council members did not include a US presentation of the evidence to bolster the resolution.

The ball would then be in Russia and China’s court to either refute the evidence or suggest another course of action – although they may well try to delay proceedings by demanding time to study the case. In the event of a blanket denial from Moscow and Beijing, the US, UK and allies could then proceed to action outside the UN framework, arguing they had attempted the diplomatic route.


What is the evidence likely to show?
The presence of poisonous chemicals in Ghouta on August 21st seems beyond dispute. Hundreds of civilians died in their houses with no sign of wounds.

The question is who released the poison gas. The West, Turkey and the Arab League have pointed to the Assad regime.

Russia and Iran and Damascus have suggested it was the work of the rebels themselves – an attempt to bring the West into the war on their side.

Foreign Policy online has what it says is a preview of the US intelligence, saying it relies in part on intercepted communications between the Syrian ministry of defence and a chemical weapons unit in the aftermath of the incident, in which “panicked” ministry officials demanded an explanation for the use of a nerve-gas attack.

If confirmed, such evidence points to Syrian army involvement but also raises more questions about precise culpability.


Why not wait for the UN weapons inspectors to issue a report?
US and British officials point to the time lag of five days before the inspectors were allowed into the attack site, compromising the evidence that could be collected.

However, UN officials say there is still plenty of meaningful evidence that can be found. Under its mandate, the team is not permitted to assign definitive blame for the attack, only to confirm what kind of agents were used. Therefore, there is little point in waiting, given the strength of the West’s independent intelligence, advocates of military action argue.

But the UN inspectors are supposed to come up with an “evidence-based narrative” of what happened in this gas attack and earlier incidents appearing to involve chemical weapons. That could provide a more universally accepted basis for assigning blame and making a response. – (Guardian service)

 

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.