Attention on Syria

Has Assad come to view the international community as incapable of action, especially with his Russian and Chinese backers at the Security Council?

Syria vigil for chemical attack 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)
Syria vigil for chemical attack 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)
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.
Doctors 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.
A 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 problematic.
He argued that nevertheless this was a “big event of grave concern.”
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 area.
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 action.
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 at Israel.
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.