The photographs from Syria last week showed people writhing on the floor before
they died. Rows of dead bodies were wrapped in sheets. Since then corroborating
evidence had indicated this was a chemical weapons attack.
Without Borders said hospitals it works with received 3,600 patients of whom 355
died. The charity could not, however, determine that gas or other chemical
weapons caused the deaths.
Footage and news of the attack has set off
alarm bells in Europe and Washington. British Foreign Secretary William Hague
said that this appeared to be a chemical attack by the regime. France’s Foreign
Minister Laurent Fabius added that if the use of chemical weapons was proven, a
“reaction with force” would be in store for Syria.
Those who want to see
this as a turning point in the Syrian civil war may have to wait. Western powers
have long said that the use of chemical weapons would be a redline in the
conflict that could result in some sort of military intervention.
similar attack in March, however, resulted only in the dispatch of UN inspectors
to Syria. The inspectors arrived days before the recent attack and are staying
at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, not far from areas affected. They are
not, however, permitted to visit the site of the recent attack or to carry out
research on it; their mandate restricts them to searching the northern town of
Khan al-Assal for evidence of an attack in March.
US President Barack
Obama told media on Friday that without a UN resolution, intervention would be
He argued that nevertheless this was a “big event of grave
But he remains cautious, given the legacy of Iraq, Libya and
Afghanistan: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate
action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very
difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive,
difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the
region,” he said.
On Sunday, the US, British and French stances appeared
to harden, as all three countries expressed “grave concern” and the French
indicated that evidence is mounting of a chemical attack. The US Defense
Department has indicated that it is preparing military options and four US
warships are now nearby.
Despite these encouraging moves aimed at putting
a halt to the crimes being committed by Bashar Assad, some of it seems cosmetic;
obviously the Pentagon already has plans in place to deal with eventualities in
Syria, and three of the US destroyers were already deployed in the
It remains to be seen if the more aggressive tone will have any
effect on the Syrian leader. With inspectors having arrived in the country just
days before, why would Assad risk crossing such a redline? One interpretation is
that he has become more brazen. With thousands of Hezbollah fighters entering
the country last month to bolster the regime and his having pushed the rebels
out of numerous areas along the Aleppo-Damascus axis, perhaps he thought it was
time to deal a death blow to the rebels in the capital.
Has Assad come to
view the international community as incapable of action, especially with his
Russian and Chinese backers at the Security Council? If so, that is the
challenge the West faces as it gathers its forces and contemplates
In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said “this
situation cannot continue,” and President Shimon Peres called for a “joint
effort to remove all chemical weapons from Syria.”
The civil war in Syria
has created a volatile situation on Israel’s northern border.
With the US
apparently eying some sort of cruise missile or air strikes, similar to NATO’s
Kosovo campaign of 1999, there is real fear that Syrian proxies in Lebanon could
lash out, or Syria could do as Saddam Hussein did in 1991, and launch missiles
This calls for close monitoring of US intentions with the need
for assurances that the international community will support Israel in any
efforts to defend itself from a malevolent regime that most countries in the
region, from Turkey to Qatar, hope will fall.