The U.S. has already distanced itself from a U.N. investigation of an alleged chemical weapons attack, as regional war looms.
Amman, Jordan — Monday, the Syrian government gave the green light to U.N. inspectors to investigate the site of last week’s deadly chemical attack, which reportedly claimed the lives of hundreds in several suburbs east of Damascus. As suspicions mount over who carried out the attack, the U.N. team came under sniper fire on their way to the site.
Washington has called the decision too late, claiming available evidence would be “significantly corrupted” due to government forces’ “persistent shelling and other intentional actions” in a military offensive in the Ghouta area.
Both the Syrian government and rebels, who have sought to topple President Bashar Assad in the 2-½-year civil war, are accusing each other of carrying out the assault. Syrian authorities have denied responsibility, claiming terrorist rebels were to blame. Assad condemned the West, saying it accuses first and then looks for evidence. He called the allegations “illogical” and “politically motivated.”
Will the West intervene?
President Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron have agreed there will be a “serious response” if Syrian troops used chemical weapons. France said that if an independent investigation confirms as much, then outside military force could be used. But Syria’s information minister warned that U.S. military intervention would bring chaos, saying the Middle East would “burn.” Assad insisted that such intervention would end in failure as in past U.S.-led wars, a reference to Vietnam and Iraq.
“If someone is dreaming of making Syria a puppet of the West, then this will not happen,” he told the Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said reports received from three hospitals it works with in the affected areas showed that 355 people had died after showing symptoms consistent with exposure to a neurotoxic agent. It said health workers aiding 3,600 patients also reported experiencing similar symptoms, including frothing at the mouth, respiratory distress, convulsions and blurry vision. The group has not been able to independently verify the information.
A senior U.S. official claimed that based on the reported number of victims and symptoms, “there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in the incident.” The official insisted on anonymity because of lack of authorization to speak publicly about the developments.
Meanwhile, Syrian government troops said that they, too, suffered from suffocation, rashes and burning in their eyes and throats while carrying out the military offensive on Saturday. They also claimed to have discovered a rebel chemical weapons stash in Jobar, near Damascus.
Analysts question timing, motives
Political analysts, such as Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, called the timing of the chemical attacks “very odd,” given that U.N. inspectors had just arrived in Syria to investigate other alleged chemical attacks that would have taken place in March and April in mainly northern regions, including Khan al-Assal, where at least 30 people were allegedly killed.
Speaking to Britain’s Sky News, Gerges also questioned why the government would use poison gas when Assad’s “army has the upper hand in the [Ghouta] area” east of Damascus, where some of the incidents occurred. However, Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said the rebel-held area was one the government had not been able to capture, despite numerous attempts.
“If you are going to consolidate the capital you have to clear these areas out,” he told USA Today. “These areas have the potential of disrupting communications lines the regime is trying to secure to link areas it wants to retain.”
Still, Gerges said a priority for Assad has been to avoid possible scenarios that would invite foreign military attack that could end up toppling his government.
“[Assad] has done everything in his power to prevent Western intervention. If chemical and poisonous gas were used, you are talking about the largest such alleged attack in the history of the Syrian conflict,” Gerges said, adding that the “red line” set by Obama surely would have been crossed.
“The pressure would be overwhelming, not just on the American president, but also on the British and French to retaliate militarily,” he said. “It would bring the brunt of the American air force against the Syrian security apparatus.”
Assad’s closest ally, Iran, issued its own warning to the Obama administration not to cross a “red line” by attacking Syria.
“America knows the limitation of the red line of the Syrian front and any crossing of Syria’s red line will have severe consequences for the White House,” said Massoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s military, according to reports by the Fars news agency.
Gerges said that Assad has been banking on the U.S. and the West not having “the stomach or will to intervene militarily in Syria.” In the past, Washington has pointed out that Syria is not Libya, where air defense systems were antiquated and vast areas of deserted space lie between populated cities.
Russia supplies Syria with up-to-date military hardware, including sophisticated air-defense systems, in exchange for maintaining its only warm water military port in the Syrian city of Tartus. Assad told the Russian newspaper Izvestiya that all of Syria’s contracts with Russia are “being fulfilled.”
“What we have seen in Syria is the mutation of the conflict. It is no longer just an internal conflict between the Assad regime and the opposition. It’s a regional war by proxy and international conflict between the U.S. and Russia,” Gerges added.
Meanwhile, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British biological and chemical counterterrorist forces, said he’s been studying the apparent attack and speaking with doctors and others in Damascus. Despite U.S. and British claims that most of the evidence from the attack will have been destroyed, degraded or tampered with, he believes that U.N. inspectors will be able to identify what chemical was used and who used it based on the recovery of the delivery systems employed. Other experts in the field of chemical warfare said that tissue samples collected will also provide important answers.
Diplomacy still possible, or military intervention inevitable?
Lord Mark Malloch Brown, the former U.N. deputy secretary general, postulated that if it is proved that Assad’s military carried out the attack, then “you have to assume that he has discounted the West and wants to expose the hollowness of its threats.”
Yet even in that instance, Malloch Brown and others believe a diplomatic solution to resolving the crisis is still possible.
The British Prime Minister David Cameron said he wants to put forward a “game-changing” U.N. resolution that would give the Syrian government “one last chance” to disarm.
Some analysts believe that perhaps the enormous pressures on all parties now brought on by the chemical weapons attacks might just force the government and the rebels towards a negotiated political settlement, with the latest speculation focusing on Geneva talks in October. But such a possibility would be upended in the event of Western military action.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is in Jordan meeting with defense ministers from Western and Mideast allies to discuss the situation in Syria. Although the meeting was planned two months ago, it has taken on greater urgency since the chemical attack.
American Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Obama has been provided with a range of options for possible military intervention, including cruise-missile strikes on government targets. Meanwhile, U.S. naval forces have been repositioned in the Mediterranean and are on stand-by for a strike on Syria.
Other U.S. officials caution that targeted strikes could risk triggering a bloody escalation. Retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and its allies in the Mideast would push Washington to respond in kind and increase the chances of full-scale war.