As chemicals slaughter more Syrians, world weighs options
Bassem Aly , Sunday 25 Aug 2013
The future of the war in Syria remains unknown as world powers ponder how to verify and respond to allegations of chemical weapons use

As the Syrian civil war approaches its third year, the international community is giving increasing attention as more and more evidence suggest the current regime used chemical weapons against opponents.

The Syrian opposition accused security forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad of using chemical weapons on Wednesday in attacks that killed 1,300 people in east and southwest Damascus.

The scenes of victims of weapons of mass destruction has pushed some in the international community to step up talk of doing more to end the war between the Bashar Al-Assad regime and rebels in which more than 100,000 people have lost their lives.

However, for some opponents of the current regime, only meaningful international intervention can put a stop to the bloodshed. For others, the increasing brutality of the regime at least warrants arming the rebels.

But no one knows when or if, or in what form, help will come.

Wednesday's deadly attacks

The regime, however, denied the accusations that came during the visit of a 20-member UN inspection team to investigate three sites where chemical weapons were allegedly used in 2012.

Mulham Al-Jundi, a member of Syrian National Council, an opposition group, told Ahram Online that the regime denied "whatever it did" after committing every massacre since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

Al-Jundi noted that all reports from activists "on the ground", and in field hospitals, confirm that chemical weapons had been used within a four-hour time period.

"It looks like Assad's regime is sending a clear message to the world in which he says he can do whatever he wants in Syria and no one has power to stop him and that he doesn't care about the UN team," Al-Jundi concluded.

World powers announced that chemical weapons use in Syria could change calculations regarding international intervention in the country, urging the Syrian government to grant the UN team access to the site of Wednesday's attacks.

On Saturday, UN Undersecretary General Angela Kane arrived in Damascus for talks on the terms of the inquiry, urging cooperation from Syria's regime and opposition.

Syrian state media, on the same day, accused rebels of using chemical weapons in a northeastern district in Damascus, describing them as "terrorists" and stating that soldiers had "suffocated" as they attempted to enter affected neighbourhoods.

"I doubt that Al-Assad's regime will easily allow UN inspectors to visit the chemical weapons [attack] sites," Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS), said.

Ziadeh, who resigned last year from the anti-regime Syrian National Coalition, highlighted the importance of greater political involvement for the international community in Syria to halt deterioration in the humanitarian situation.

"Only the international community will decide the future of the crisis. Syrians can hardly influence the domestic situation in their country," Ziadeh claimed.

Western governments believe that mustard gas, Sarin and VX nerve agents have been used in past confrontations between regime troops and rebels.

World divided on Syria

Syria, along with six other states, did not join the convention outlawing chemical weapons signed in 1997. Some 13 chemical weapons attacks in Syria have been reported since the beginning of the conflict, the UN has said.

No international consensus, however, has yet emerged on what to do either about the alleged attacks or the conflict itself.Among Al-Assad's key allies, Russia, China and Iran, reactions differ on the chemical weapons question.

Moscow has called on the Syrian government to cooperate with UN experts, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Yet Russia mentioned it "was now up to rebels to allow safe access for the mission to the site of the alleged incident," announcing an agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart, John Kerry, on the necessity of an "objective investigation."

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said that it was previously possible for Russia and the Syrian regime to "muddy the waters" regarding other, smaller instances of chemical weapons use."But this time such tactics won't work."

"The real question is whether Russia will feel obliged to accept measures against the regime if its responsibility is established, and also whether it will feel obliged to distance itself from the regime's position if the regime resorts to delaying tactics and prevents UN access to the attack sites," Sayigh added.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani called on the international community to prevent the use of chemical weapons, saying for the first time Saturday that chemical weapons have killed people in Syria.

The Iranian foreign ministry pointed fingers at the rebels. However, Rowhani himself did not specify which party to the conflict used the chemical weapons.

China said that no side should jump to "prejudge the results" of any UN probe on chemical weapons.

Conversely, the United States, Britain and France all say the attacks were carried out by Al-Assad forces.

Israel, which incessantly has expressed concern that Syria's chemical arsenal could fall into the hands of "anti-Israeli militants," reported the same.

Israeli Minister for Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz referred to "intelligence estimates" that showed chemical weapons were used in Syria. He provided no further elaboration.

Possible responses

Sayigh said that France has spoken of armed action outside the UN framework if necessary, but the US is reluctant to get involved militarily.

He highlighted that "one avenue" for non-military action is to put pressure on Russia and China to allow a new UN resolution to establish certain sanctions against the regime.

"Failing this, the US and EU (and other members of the "core group" of the Friends of Syria coalition) may increase military assistance to the Syrian opposition in terms both of quality and quantity," Sayigh said.

"Should Russia not cooperate at the UN, a bolder move would be to put into action a plan for the creation of protected safe havens along Syria's northern and southern borders, in the face of Russian objections if that is unavoidable," he concluded.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel asserted on Sunday that US military was ready to take action against the regime "if ordered," a statement that Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi had criticised.

"US military intervention will create very serious fallout and a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East," the Syrian minister told the Syrian state news agency SANA.