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UN approves probe into gas attacks in Syria: Way forward to address civil war?

Friday’s unanimous vote by the UN Security Council to identify who is using chlorine on Syrian civilians puts that country's civil war back on center stage.

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    Members of the UN investigation team take samples from the ground in the Damascus countryside of Zamalka, Syria, in August 2013.
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Approval of a United Nations Security Council resolution on chemical attacks in Syria suggests that conclusion of the Iran nuclear talks last month may have paved the way to renewed diplomatic action on the Middle East’s deadliest conflict.

After 18 months of intense negotiations between world powers and Iran that sucked up much of the world’s diplomatic energy, Friday’s unanimous vote by the 15-member council to identify who is using chlorine on Syrian civilians puts that country's civil war back on center stage.

And with Russia joining the United States in support of the resolution passed Friday, US diplomats and some regional experts say signs are growing that a door has reopened – if only slightly so far – to finding a political settlement to Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year.

“This is not a breakthrough for a political settlement, it’s a start,” says Michael Doyle, an expert in international relations at Columbia University in New York and a former UN special adviser.

The Syrian conflict has cost nearly a quarter-million lives, given rise to the self-described Islamic State, and played a major part in spawning the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

The resolution passed Friday is narrowly focused on getting to the bottom of chlorine gas attacks that have continued against Syrian civilians, despite a September 2013 accord between the US and Russia to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. The document directs the UN and the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to identify the “individuals, entities, groups or governments” involved in organizing or perpetrating the use in Syria of chemicals as weapons, including “chlorine or any other toxic chemical.”

Civilian populations have reported, sometimes with video evidence, chlorine gas attacks that they say were part of barrel-bomb attacks launched from helicopters. The US and other Western powers say the evidence points to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the only party in the Syrian fighting with helicopters. Russia, a key ally to Mr. Assad, has said there is no proof of where the attacks originated.

Despite the resolution’s focus on identifying the gas-attack perpetrators, US diplomats are raising the hope that the initiative – and, in particular, Russia’s role in it – can lead to broader action on Syria.

“We need to bring the same unity that we [on the Security Council] have shown today to urgently find a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said after the council’s vote. 

On Thursday, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, Mark Toner, told reporters that passage of the resolution would underscore a “common cause from both sides – us and the Russians – to address this” use of chemicals that could lead to broader engagement on Syria.

“It’s a critical first step in trying to get justice for the Syrian people,” he said.  

Those statements followed earlier comments from administration officials suggesting that reaching the nuclear deal with Iran could open the way to renewed diplomatic movement in the Middle East. White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, in particular, has touted the deal for its potential to produce an “evolution” in Iran’s regional behavior, including in Syria.

Iran and Russia remain Mr. Assad’s two biggest backers.

Signs of renewed US-Russia cooperation on Syria emerged Thursday after Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Malaysia to push the Syria chemical-use resolution forward. The two top diplomats worked out the September 2013 plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons and met frequently during the Iran negotiations.

Russia is showing signs of wanting to get the diplomatic train on Syria moving again. Next week, the Russian government will receive in Moscow both representatives of the Syrian political opposition and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir for talks on ending the Syrian conflict.

Iran is also getting into the act, announcing recently that it would soon present a four-point Syria peace plan to the UN.

The biggest stumbling block to moving forward on Syria continues to be Assad. The US insists that Assad’s unabated attacks against his own people disqualify him from any role in a political resolution of the conflict. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran show no sign that they are ready to abandon him.

The State Department’s Mr. Toner says the US continues to see Iran’s support for Assad as a disqualifier from participation in any effort to resolve the Syria conflict through a political settlement. “If Iran could play a constructive role, it would be one in which it doesn’t support the Assad regime,” he said, adding that “any covert, overt support for that regime is a nonstarter.”

But Columbia’s Dr. Doyle says that Iran aside, the US-Russia disconnect on how (and who) to reach a political settlement continues to overshadow whatever glimmers are emerging of light at the end of Syria’s long, torturous tunnel.

“We still haven’t got to the position, particularly from the Russian side, that a negotiated solution by all the parties is the needed outcome,” he says. “Nor has the US been willing to countenance that some form of the Assad regime be included in negotiations. Until you bridge that somehow,” he adds, “there’s not much room to move forward.”

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