Chemical Weapons in Syria: A Wake-Up Call That Is Hopefully Heard

The Syrian people need to be saved from themselves. On Wednesday of last week the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) reported that over 1,300 people had been killed in a chemical weapons attack in the outskirts of Damascus.

Videos and photographs show stockpiled bodies with no visible signs of injury, with survivors foaming at the mouth and suffering from asphyxiation. Medecins Sans Frontieres confirmed on Saturday that over 3,600 patients flooded hospitals with symptoms of mass-exposure to “a neurotoxic agent,” reporting 355 deaths. Experts are in no doubt that chemical weapons were used. The only question is: by whom?

The SNC has blamed the Syrian military, but the Assad regime, supported by Russia and China, has strongly denied the accusation. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich accused the rebel forces of culpability, asserting that the attack was a “pre-planned provocation.” The timing of the attack is proof it was rebel-conducted, asserted Lukashevich. Why would Assad launch a chemical weapons attack on the very same day UN inspectors arrived to investigate earlier allegations of the use of chemical weapons? Implausible. Why would Assad risk it when he seems to be winning the war by conventional means? Ridiculous.

Lukashevich has a point. In the past few months the rebels have been forced on the back foot. Are they desperate enough to sacrifice hundreds of innocent lives and blame it on the regime as a ploy to persuade foreign governments to intervene in the conflict? After all, desperate times call for desperate measures. While it is extremely unlikely the SNC would have authorised such an attack on its own people, it could have been perpetrated by one of the more extreme factions in the rebel alliance – the Al-Qaeda associated Al-Nusra perhaps – operating without the knowledge of the SNC.

This is all speculation, of course. What we do know for sure is that chemical weapons were used. Innocent civilians, children included, were murdered on a large scale in the most painfully cruel way. We also know the Assad regime has huge stockpiles of chemical weapons, and its military has already shown it is not opposed to mass-murder of innocent lives – lest we forget the Al-Qubeir massacre.

If Assad were found guilty of this attack it would surely spell the end of his reign. Despite the inevitable protests of Russia and China, the international community could not possibly avoid intervening. Does this make the idea that Assad is responsible more or less likely?

Think of it this way. The only way to prove Assad’s culpability is to have the UN inspectors visit the site of the attack. To do this the UN Security Council would have to approve a resolution giving the inspectors a mandate to do so. This won’t happen. UN diplomats reported that Russia and China have already opposed language that would give the inspectors a mandate to investigate. Assad has no reason to worry the UN inspectors will find him out.

Knowing this, the arrival of the UN inspectors provided Assad with an opportunity to show his power and to expose the impotence of the international community – right in front of the UN’s nose. It would demonstrate to the rebels that Assad can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without consequences, and the momentum in the war will all be in his favour. 

The balance of probabilities suggests the regime launched this attack, but even if the rebel forces are responsible it does not mean the international community should do nothing. The world reached a consensus on banning chemical weapons for a reason. Death by chemical weapons is everybody’s business. If Syria is left alone to tear itself apart, with chemical weapons becoming part and parcel of the escalation of the war, it will become evident that the international community has entered another dark age in which human life and dignity take a back seat to Great Power politics. If this plays out as business as usual at the UN, with Russia and China vetoing any form of UN intervention, surely there has not been a more compelling time for the governments of the rest of the world to shed the niceties of international diplomacy and act to save the tens of thousands of innocent Syrian lives that will surely be lost in the months and years ahead. 

A fourth U.S. Navy ship armed with ballistic missiles was sent to the eastern Mediterranean Sea on Saturday, a move that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said was “to provide the president with options for contingencies.” Hopefully Obama chooses the contingency that saves lives instead of that which permits further losses.