Terrorism & Security
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Despite having lost the military support of a key US ally last night, President Barack Obama appears to be moving ahead with plans to justify and execute a military strike against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
CBS News reports that the administration will release today a declassified version of its intelligence report regarding last week's alleged use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as a legal justification for US military action in response to that event.
But any such attack will have to happen without the participation of Britain. Parliament last night rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's motion to intervene in Syria. The Guardian reports that the government was defeated 272 to 285, as rebel members of Mr. Cameron's Conservative party joined the Labour opposition in blocking military action. Cameron agreed to abide by the decision.
"I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons," he said. "It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly."
While the vote was a setback for President Obama – Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California told Time that having Britain on board "makes a difference" – officials "made clear that the eroding support would not deter" his decision to go ahead alone, writes The New York Times.
Pentagon officials said that the Navy had now moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Each ship carries dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles that would probably be the centerpiece of any attack on Syria. ...
Although administration officials cautioned that Mr. Obama had not made a final decision, all indications suggest that a strike could occur soon after United Nations investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country. They are scheduled to depart Damascus on Saturday.
But domestic pressure against a hasty attack is building as well. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Congressional officials are increasingly demanding a say in the authorization of military strikes.
House Speaker John Boehner suggested after a phone call with Mr. Obama Thursday that many of the “concerns” he laid out in the conversation were not addressed and that the case for military strikes would require more time for explanations from the president.
“Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed,” Mr. Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, said in a statement.
Similarly, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan told MSNBC on Thursday that "When we take what is a very difficult decision, you have to have buy-in by members and buy-in by the public. I think both of those are critically important and, right now, none of that has happened.”
Even within the president's own party, there is growing resistance: A bloc of 54 Democratic representatives sent a letter to Obama Thursday cautioning against bypassing Congress, the Monitor adds. “While we understand that as Commander in Chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests (such as its embassies) have not been attacked or threatened with an attack,” the letter said.
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This week’s drumbeat toward Western action in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons is slowing its tempo as politicians in Britain and the US demand a say in how the countries respond.
After days of headlines like, “US and Allies Prepare for Action in Syria,” “Military strikes on Syria 'as early as Thursday,' US officials say,” and “US military "ready" to attack Syria, Hagel says,” the international community may be hedging its bets.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who earlier this week seemed on track to call for military action, guaranteed legislators two rounds of voting on the topic. The first vote will be on the “principle” of military intervention, and the second will come after the United Nations inspectors release their chemical weapons report, according to the BBC.
The Associated Press reports that Britain’s “Labour leader Ed Miliband said Thursday he is unwilling to give Prime Minister David Cameron a 'blank check' for conducting possible future military operations against Syria.”
In the US yesterday, “a day of stalled diplomacy … suggested any military strikes could be delayed,” according to The Wall Street Journal. President Obama “cautioned that he hasn't yet decided whether to launch an attack.” The statement, made in an interview with PBS, came after 116 lawmakers wrote a letter to the president “demanding he seek congressional authorization for a military strike.”
Mr. Obama's comments capped a day in which the US and British push to gain approval for military strikes appeared to meet with resistance and possible delays. They also appeared to moderate US officials' earlier signals that an attack could be mounted "in coming days" in response to what they call clear-cut indications that Syria used chemical weapons in attacks around Damascus early on Aug. 21. Activists and residents say more than 1,000 people died in the attacks.
It was not only national politicians stepping in to say “wait.” The United Nations Security Council yesterday closed a “tense” meeting without going to a vote on a British-proposed resolution calling for intervention in Syria, according to a separate AP report.
“US Ambassador Samantha Power criticized the Russians and Chinese in a series of Twitter messages Wednesday afternoon, saying their refusal to back the British draft was their latest effort to block action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad," AP reports.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “called for restraint” while speaking at the 100-year anniversary of The Hague yesterday, reports The Christian Science Monitor.
Mr. Ban said the images in the area where chemical weapons were allegedly used in Syria “were ‘unlike any we have seen in the 21st century’ but urged a peaceful, diplomatic solution and called upon the divided UN Security Council not to go 'missing in action'."
"Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking," Ban said.
Some have suggested Obama’s choice of words last year – calling chemical weapon-use in Syria a “red line” that, if crossed, would call for intervention – may have played into the aggressive talk of military action that took place after news broke last week of suspected chemical weapons use.
“President Obama is hemmed in by his own rhetoric in a way that many, back in 2008, would have associated with Bush rather than the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize based mostly on the quality of his words rather than his accomplishments,” writes Slate.
As the president has weighed military action, talk of a moral response to the atrocity has been clouded by a discussion of how America's reputation would suffer if Obama did not act. A year ago, Obama said Syria's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line." If you read his entire answer, Obama tries to dilute his comment almost immediately. He says his "calculus" and his “equation” would change, words that are meant to give him room to move. He didn’t want to box himself into a military-only response. But when you use terms like "red line," it tends to make people not listen to the rest of the sentence. That's why you use the term in the first place.
The Monitor’s Dan Murphy questions why chemical weapons – given all the other atrocities going on in Syria – were viewed as a potential tipping point in the first place.
The alleged number of dead from the alleged chemical attack is about 350 people – less than 0.35 percent of the total number deaths in the Syrian war, which is now well over 100,000. In over two years of fighting children have been tortured to death, area fire weapons like mortars and rockets have rained down on crowded civilian neighborhoods (a war crime), suicide bombs from rebels have killed civilians and soldiers alike on the streets of Damascus (ditto), and both sides have executed captives with a liberal hand.
If the immorality of a weapon lies in its capacity to kill, then the humble assault rifle or machete are far more immoral instruments of death. Yes, theoretically chemical weapons could kill far more in a short period of time, but that hasn't been the track record.
Whether or not Western powers intervene may also rest on the legality of involvement. Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not in violation of international law, according to Ian Hurd, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in an op-ed for The New York Times.
Syria is a party to neither the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 nor the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, and even if it were, the treaties rely on the United Nations Security Council to enforce them — a major flaw. Syria is a party to the Geneva Protocol, a 1925 treaty that bans the use of toxic gases in wars. But this treaty was designed after World War I with international war in mind, not internal conflicts.
What about the claim that, treaties aside, chemical weapons are inherently prohibited? While some acts — genocide, slavery and piracy — are considered unlawful regardless of treaties, chemical weapons are not yet in this category. As many as 10 countries have stocks of chemical weapons today, with the largest held by Russia and by the United States.
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Amid US preparations for possible military strikes against the Syrian regime, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain make another push for the United Nations Security Council to authorize "necessary measures to protect civilians" in the war-torn country from chemical weapon attacks.
Mr. Cameron announced in a series of posts on Twitter that Britain "has drafted a resolution condemning the chemical weapons attack by [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad & authorising necessary measures to protect civilians. The resolution will be put forward at a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council later today in New York."
"We've always said we want the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria," he wrote. "Today they have an opportunity to do that."
The Guardian reports that Cameron's move was made to secure support from Britain's opposition Labour party for a Thursday vote in Parliament to authorize military action in Syria. Labour announced earlier today that it would only back such action if it had "clear legal basis."
A party spokesman said: "We have made it clear that we want to see a clear legal basis for any action. As part of the legal justification, Labour is seeking the direct involvement of the United Nations through the evidence of the weapons inspectors and consideration by the security council."
But the likelihood of success of the British resolution seems dim.
While the US, Britain, and France have all spoken in favor of a military response to the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons on its civilian population, their fellow members of the security council, China and Russia, remain adamantly opposed. Russia warned that Western action in Syria on "unproven excuses" could have "catastrophic consequences," The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday. And Bloomberg writes that an editorial in today's People’s Daily newspaper, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, said that action should not take place until investigations were complete.
The US and its allies will also lack explicit support from the Arab League, which on Tuesday condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria but did not speak in favor of intervention, reports The New York Times. The absence of Arab League support "leav[es] President Obama without the broad regional support he had for his last military intervention in the Middle East, in Libya in 2011."
Behind the scenes at least two closely allied Arab heavyweights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, may be split over which enemy poses the greater immediate threat to their regional interests: the Sunni Islamists who dominate the Syrian rebels, or the Shiite Iranian backers of Mr. Assad.
The Arab League, a regional diplomatic forum that has already expelled Mr. Assad’s government, said in its statement that it holds “the Syrian regime responsible for this heinous crime,” but the statement also appeared to suggest that the specific “perpetrators” were not yet known and should be brought to international justice.
Stopping short of endorsing Western intervention, the league called on the UN Security Council to “overcome the disagreements between its members” so it could “take the necessary deterring measures against the perpetrators of this crime, whose responsibility falls on the Syrian regime,” and end other abuses that “the Syrian regime has been committing.”
The Daily Telegraph writes that the US is preparing its case for action against Syria in a report being compiled by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, which could be released as early as Thursday. The Telegraph notes that the report could draw from a number of pieces of intelligence, including an alleged "intercepted telephone call made by a panicking official at the Syrian Ministry of Defence following the chemical weapons attack" and "satellite images that purport to show that continued shelling by the Assad regime was obliterating evidence of chemical weapon use."
The Wall Street Journal reports that the US justification also includes reports from Israeli spy services:
[Israeli intelligence] provided the Central Intelligence Agency with intelligence from inside an elite special Syrian unit that oversees Mr. Assad's chemical weapons, Arab diplomats said. The intelligence, which the CIA was able to verify, showed that certain types of chemical weapons were moved in advance to the same Damascus suburbs where the attack allegedly took place a week ago, Arab diplomats said.
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US and European leaders have vowed to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for a suspected chemical weapons attack last week, but the international community's next steps are far from clear.
The US used some of its strongest language yet in responding to the alleged chemical weapons attacks, reports Bloomberg. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry labeled the attack a “cowardly crime” and said President Barack Obama “believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain was considering a “proportionate response” to the suspected attack and called Parliament back from summer recess in order to discuss potential action, Reuters reports. French President Francois Hollande has also been in communication with US leaders about a potential response.
The international nongovernmental organization Doctors without Borders (MSF) reports that about 3,600 patients showing "neurotoxic symptoms” were treated in Syria last week. More than 350 people died. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and last week the number of child refugees reached 1 million, reports Time.
“The whole world should be concerned about any threat or use of chemical weapons. And that is why the world is watching Syria,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at a press conference in South Korea yesterday.
The findings of the scientists charged with investigating chemical weapons use “could legitimize to the world a US intervention in Syria – or they could provide ammunition for Washington's enemies, who argue that the US may once again be blundering into an Arab country based on scant information about weapons of mass destruction,” reports Foreign Policy.
“If they have any evidence of our use [of such weapons], I challenge them to show this evidence to [global] public opinion,” Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said at a press conference in Damascus today. “It’s the right of public opinion to know the truth of these allegations.”
China and Russia, both members with veto power on the UN Security Council, have implied there is no evidence of chemical weapons use, and that the international community is jumping to conclusions, reports The BBC.
"Attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa," Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters this week.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Russia correspondent writes that US-Russia diplomatic relations are straining under the chemical weapons discussions.
…There was a discernibly fresh tone of diplomatic desperation that suggests Moscow has lost hope that a US-led military intervention in Syria can be forestalled, and is now preparing for a changed world in which there will no longer be even a semblance of US-Russian cooperation on Middle Eastern issues like the jointly brokered Geneva peace conference to bring together both sides in the Syrian conflict….
“The message is that if the US launches a military intervention into Syria's civil war, Russia will be as negative as possible," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "Russia won't try to stop it, but will do nothing to help legitimize it," he says.
On Monday the US said it was postponing a meeting with Russia meant to jump-start discussions on the topic of chemical weapons in Syria and to identify a political solution to the violence there, reports the BBC.
But Russia and China are just two of the many voices divided over how to react to the latest news out of Syria.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said it is challenging for the bloc's 28 countries to come to a “joint conclusion” on Syria, reports a separate BBC story. Ms. Ashton urged the use of Security Council channels in making any decisions.
US lawmakers are stepping forward to express their support for some kind of intervention in Syria, according to The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the US public seems to be shrinking away.
According to a Reuters poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t believe the United States should intervene in Syria. If it is proved that President Mr. Assad used chemical weapons, 25 percent of American would support intervention, down from just over 30 percent in support earlier this month.
The Assad regime has said that if chemical weapons were used, it was by rebel groups. But John Norris writes in Foreign Policy that the world has seen world leaders take similar action in the past, with little fear of international recourse.
What gives? Why would Assad do something so provocative, something so stupid, something so obviously designed to trigger an international military response?
The answer is simple. Assad -- like former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and former Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi -- got so used to poking the great slumbering bear that is the United States and the international community without any response that he assumed he had absolute impunity to do whatever he pleased on the ground.
After all, the United States did not seem inclined to dramatic action even after the UN announced that there were a million children refugees from the conflict. President Obama's initial, forceful declaration that the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" later proved to be rather squishy. Russia and China have maintained a united front in the U.N. Security Council against concerted action, and it is obvious that the United States couldn't be less eager to engage in another Middle Eastern war on the heels of costly interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
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The incident is a setback for those hoping the inspectors would provide a more objective determination on whether the Assad regime had in fact gassed its own people. Russia and Iran have been insisting there is not enough proof that the regime was behind the chemical weapons attack last week, and continue to urge restraint in any international response.
But other international players are already saying there is little doubt, laying the groundwork for an intervention in Syria without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, which Russia has thwarted.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said today that Britain and its allies did not need the unanimous approval of council members, insisting that a response would be “based on great humanitarian need and distress” and would not violate international law.
“Is it possible to respond without complete agreement on the Security Council? I would argue yes it is,” Mr. Hague said, according to the BBC. “Other countries including France are very clear that we can’t allow the idea that chemical weapons in the 21st century can can be used with impunity.”
The divided council has not “shouldered its responsibilities,” he said, insisting that if it had been united, there would have been a “better chance of bringing this conflict to an end a long time ago.”
The insistent, widespread push for an intervention – after more than two years in which international parties largely urged and pursued policies of restraint – emerged abruptly after an attack on the Damacus suburb of Ghouta last week. According to the opposition, the attack left some 1,300 dead. International humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it treated more than 3,000 people for symptoms "consistent with exposure to toxic nerve agents," The New York Times reports. More than 300 of those people died.
Now an international coalition for intervention is coalescing, even before UN inspectors could spend time at the scene of last week's attack today, Bloomberg reports.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain is convinced Assad was behind the attack and that there was agreement with the US and France on the need to respond. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country will join a “coalition” against Syria if the UN fails to act.
As inspectors started their investigation of some of the areas allegedly targeted, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence said the use of chemicals was “clear,” while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was “obvious” the weapons had been used and that the “massacre’s origin comes from the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
Iran, the only regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad other than Hezbollah, warned that Israel could become "the victim" if international parties attacked Syria, according to Bloomberg.
“What happened in Syria five days ago is beyond our worst imagination – the use of chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister of strategy, told journalists today at a Jerusalem briefing. “The world can’t allow this to happen. The world can’t allow this to proceed.”
In an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia, Mr. Assad flatly denied the accusations, Reuters reports.
"Would any state use chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic," Assad told Izvestia.
"So, accusations of this kind are entirely political and the reason for them is the government forces' series of victories over the terrorists," he said, referring to rebels fighting in the two-year-old civil war.
But Britain, for one, has no doubt that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, according to McClatchy:
“We are clear in the British Government that it was the Assad regime that carried out this … large-scale chemical attack, last Wednesday that has led to the …agonizing deaths of so many hundreds of people, including, tragically, so many children,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement Sunday. “The eyewitness accounts, the fact this area was under bombardment by the regime forces at the time that the chemical attack took place. It all points in that direction to the responsibility of the regime.”
Invoking the principle of the "responsibility to protect," the foreign minister of Kosovo urged in a column for Foreign Policy that the international community act without the approval of the Security Council. A NATO intervention in the Balkans in 1999 brought an end to a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign there, and has been cited repeatedly in the last few days by proponents of an international intervention.
It's time for something new in Syria. Or rather, it's time for an old idea that has worked before.
The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 serves as a model for our allies in the West and the Arab world to end Syrian suffering. Back then, humanitarian intervention by the international community not only brought an end to ethnic cleaning, but it also showed that the classical idea of state sovereignty cannot be used as a shield to justify repressive policies and crimes against humanity.
The intervention in Kosovo also affirmed that, even without the mandate of the U.N. Security Council, countries should act to prevent regimes from abusing human rights. As a country that today enjoys freedom and democracy thanks to NATO action, we are strong supporters of the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility. Speaking from experience, the time has come for the international community to offer protection to the people of Syria.
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“This one millionth child refugee is not just another number,” said Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, the UN children’s agency. "This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend."
The statistic was released as the UN pushes for immediate investigation of an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus. The Syrian government refuted the accusation, calling it “illogical and fabricated,” according to the BBC.
"But unverified footage shows civilians – many of them children – apparently suffering horrific symptoms, as well as rows of shrouded bodies," the BBC reports. "Chemical weapons experts have told the BBC that footage appears genuine and that the injuries shown are consistent with nerve agents."
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis
On Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed calls for UN inspectors to be allowed to investigate the claims immediately.
"I can think of no good reason why any party, either government or opposition forces – would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter," the UN chief said, according to Reuters.
As the Daily Beast reports, the UN is acting quickly as pressure mounts across the globe in the face of the allegations.
Angela Kane [the UN's top disarmament representative] will fly to Syria, which has received a formal request for access to the suburb where more than a thousand died in what appears to be a the largest attack so far in the Syrian conflict. The UN team currently inside Syria is only authorized to investigate three of the 13 sites deemed suspicious before Wednesday's attack. Meanwhile, France has urged that force be used if the use of chemical weapons is confirmed.
Syria has become, according to the UN, the worst refugee crisis since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Some 100,000 people have been
killed since protests broke out against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. Refugees have been fleeing to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, and increasingly North Africa and Europe.
Children are among the most vulnerable. While 1 million have been forced to flee the violence, the UN says that 2 million others are displaced within the country. "The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Education is a top longterm concern, as these children are part of a so-called “lost generation” that won’t easily be able to bring stability to their country in the future, says the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes. Few have been able to study or receive psychological counseling.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported in April:
Throughout the region, one of the biggest concerns for Syrian refugee families is finding schooling for their children, who make up 48
percent of the Syrian refugee population and are unable to attend official schooling in their host countries. The longer children stay out of school, the
less likely they are to eventually return, according to a March report from Save the Children. In Jordan, CARE found that more than 60 percent of school-age children are not attending any classes, despite the availability of free schooling.
For most parents, the auxiliary costs associated with schooling, such as transportation, supplies, and lunches, prove an insurmountable barrier.“It’s a worry in its own sense, of course for the education and the future of those children, but we also think it’s a very clear indicator of the levels of poverty that families are experiencing,” says Kate Washington, Syrian refugee response coordinator at CARE Jordan. “One of the things that is of concern … is the scope and scale of needs and the fact that they are increasing, and we have absolutely no reason to suspect that they will stop increasing.”
On Friday, UNICEF officials urged the international community to respond to the problem, which it says belongs to everybody. "We must all share the shame," said UNICEF's Mr. Lake, "Because while we work to alleviate the suffering of those affected by this crisis, the global community has failed in its responsibility to this child. We should stop and ask ourselves how, in all conscience, we can continue to fail the children of Syria."
But Michael Gerson in The Washington Post shows the limits on countries that are responding to Syrian children who have been forced to leave their homes.
More than three-quarters of Syrian refugees live outside the camps in cities and towns. Initially, many Jordanians opened their homes and even took out personal loans to offer help. But this welcome has (naturally) faded over time. In a Jordanian border region near Syria where I visited, hospitals are full and refusing referrals, medicines are in short supply, schools are running double shifts, scarce water is delivered less frequently and wages have been undercut by high-skill, low-cost Syrian labor.
Add to this a growing resentment that refugees get aid while equally poor Jordanians often do not. Add to this a recent cut in the electricity subsidy in Jordan, a reform mandated by the International Monetary Fund as an austerity measure. At best, this is a recipe for tension; at worst, for instability. And Jordan is the keystone of stability for the whole region.
Jordan — a nation of about 7 million next to a collapsing country of 22 million — is in the process of being overwhelmed.
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The drumbeat for international intervention in Syria's civil war picked up again as footage of Syrian civilians dead or in respiratory distress began circulating on the Internet – the victims, allegedly, of a chemical weapon attack yesterday by the Syrian regime.
Last night French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that "force" was needed if the claims could be proven, although he also said troops on the ground were not an option.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Turkey, a staunch ally of the Syrian opposition, also called for action.
"In Syria all red lines were crossed, but the UN Security Council has not been even able to come up with a resolution.… This event is one that cannot be ignored anymore," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "The Security Council should not remain indecisive and apply the most powerful precautions in this issue.… Otherwise, much worse massacres will take place."
Yesterday's alleged attack occurred in eastern and western Ghouta, outside Damascus. The regime has been trying to take the rebel strongholds for more than a year, according to CNN. By the end of the day, Syrian opposition groups were reporting more than 1,300 dead. The Syrian government denied the reports.
But the US is clearly trying to calm the international community's furious urgency, calling for an investigation before any decisions are made.
"If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team's immediate and unfettered access to this site," the White House statement said, according to CNN.
Reports of chemical weapons attacks have circulated before; those previous allegations are what brought the UN inspections team to Syria yesterday. This attack will "eclipse" all others in Syria if proven true, Greg Thielmann at the Arms Control Association in Washington told McClatchy. A previous US assessment found that the regime had conducted only small-scale attacks, killing about 150 people.
Those allegations of gassing civilians – opposition activists claim that 1,100 to more than 1,600 people are dead – dwarfed all previous such accounts in the increasingly bloody civil war.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 647 Syrians were killed Wednesday, and it attributed nearly 590 of those deaths to chemical weapons. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, considered the most authoritative group tracking casualties in the conflict, estimated at least 136 dead from an air assault but didn’t address whether chemical weapons appeared to be involved.
But the US will have a very difficult time confirming the chemical weapons attack, and there are reasons to doubt the claims, or at least the scope of them. If true, they imply that the regime carried out the chemical weapons as United Nations chemical weapons inspectors arrived to investigate earlier allegations – which Syria observers deemed "nonsensical," McClatchy reports.
McClatchy notes that if the attack could be confirmed, it would be the "clearest example yet of a breach of the 'red line'" that President Barack Obama warned the leader not to cross.
But Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington and the Obama administration's deputy assistant secretary for near eastern affairs until last year, says Obama's red line has "eroded," and even that might not be enough to prompt a US intervention given the increasing role jihadists are playing among the rebels, and Hezbollah and Iran's involvement.
As the war has ground on, U.S. officials have become increasingly vague about what would force an intervention.
[Ms. Cofman Wittes] noted that Obama’s remarks in a TV interview with Charlie Rose in June suggested that the administration’s red lines had faded. In that appearance, Obama made it clear that he’d proceed with caution in response to any chemical-weapons claims.
“Have we mapped out all of the chemical weapons facilities inside of Syria to make sure that we don’t drop a bomb on a chemical weapons facility that ends up then dispersing chemical weapons and killing civilians, which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent?” Obama said. “Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations, then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East.”
In a blog post for The Washington Post examining "Five reasons the US doesn't act on Syria's chemical weapons," Max Fisher writes:
It’s not exactly a secret that the Obama administration has been significantly softening its language on where it’s drawing a red line on chemical weapons in Syria and how it would respond. The trick here is that this “red line” matters for more than just Syria; it matters for upholding the international taboo against chemical weapons.
It appears that the Obama administration wants to uphold this norm without forcing itself to intervene more forcefully in Syria. Squaring those two goals has led it into some real contortions: at times by playing down the red line, and at others by playing up its response. That gets tougher as the Assad regime continues, assuming these latest reports are true, to successfully call the administration’s bluffs.
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A rocket attack in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus Wednesday morning left scores dead and raised new fears that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons against opposition forces.
Just three days after a United Nations team arrived in Syria to investigate alleged chemical weapons use in the county’s grinding two-year civil war, opposition groups say the government made use of an unknown “poison gas” in Wednesday’s attack on the Ghouta area of eastern Damascus, with some claiming that casualties numbered several hundred, reports the BBC.
Unconfirmed videos purportedly taken from the site of the attacks show hundreds of people lying dead or wounded in hospitals and on pavement, with their bodies bearing few signs of conventional injury. Some are foaming at the mouth. As The Guardian reported, field hospital personnel clearly “believed that they were dealing with a chemical or toxic attack.”
Those attending have stripped the injured down - seemingly in an effort to remove traces of any possible toxics from clothes. None of the injured or dead appear to have any visible injures. Many if not all of the injured are struggling to breathe or suffering from respiratory problems.
Some footage shows people wearing oxygen masks and others show scenes of people's hearts and chests being massaged or being hosed and washed. In a few cases people including children are filmed foaming at the mouth whilst those attending give mouth to mouth.
Mr. Assad’s regime admitted to carrying out the attack Wednesday, but said accusations of chemical weapons use were an opposition tactic designed to prejudice the UN investigation.
"The army will never use chemical gas on the Syrian people, if it does exist anyway," said a Syrian official speaking anonymously to CBS. “This is a media war but the way they think is really stupid…. Would you imagine that we would use chemical weapons where a UN team is here to inspect?"
The UN group arrived in Damascus Saturday to begin a limited probe into three earlier alleged uses of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, notably an alleged sarin gas attack in the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal in March.
That attack drew a stark line through the international community. The United States, France, Britain, and Israel accused the government of unleashing the deadly chemical on rebel fighters, while Russia alleged that it was the opposition who used the infamous nerve gas.
The UN probe will investigate the attack at Khan al-Assal, but with a rigidly circumscribed scope. It can only assess whether chemical weapons were used, not assign responsibility for their deployment, reports Al Jazeera.
“The investigation has such a limited mandate,” said reporter Nisreen El-Shamayleh. “However, UN says that any investigation to the alleged use of chemical weapons inside Syria would serve as a deterrent in the future for either side, rebels or government, to use these weapons again.”
Eastern Ghouta, where the rocket attacks took place Wednesday, has long been seen by both the Assad regime and rebel forces as a crucial gateway to the capital Damascus, The Guardian reports.
Activists have accused the government of refusing to allow aid convoys into the area, which hosts enclaves from several of the main opposition groups, and 15 civilians were killed during shelling of the area in April, reports Al Jazeera.
Whether the UN team will investigate this latest attack as part of its investigation has not yet been determined, according to the BBC.
The head of the inspection mission, Ake Sellstrom, said he had seen TV footage of the latest attack but nothing more.
"It sounds like something that should be looked into," Mr Sellstrom told the Swedish TT news agency.
Mr Sellstrom said that whether his team went to the scene would depend on whether any UN member state went to the UN Secretary General and asked them to.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that it was business as usual for the Assad propaganda machine Wednesday, as “Syrian state television continued with its normal morning programming, interviewing vendors at an outdoor market and hosting a talk show about astrology. A red banner flashed briefly at the bottom of the screen, saying there was “no truth whatsoever” to reports about the use of chemical weapons."
Several foreign governments, however, quickly condemned the attack, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague saying it potentially marked “a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
The Obama administration had previously called chemical weapons use a “red line” in the conflict that could prompt American military intervention, and as The Christian Science Monitor reported in June, many Americans see governmental use of chemical weapons – if confirmed – as a solid pretext for direct intervention.
An April Pew Research survey found plurality support (45 to 31 percent) for military action, "if it is confirmed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against anti-government groups," the HuffPost writers note. Similarly, a CNN/ORC survey in May found 68 percent thought military action justified "if the United States were able to present evidence that convinced you that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and has used them to kill civilians in that country."
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Obama administration officials and the office of US Sen. Patrick Leahy, head of the appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, say that the White House had quietly suspended military aid to Egypt. But any leverage gained over Egypt's increasingly recalcitrant, violent military leaders may be negated by Saudi Arabia's pledge to fill the funding gap.
"To those who have announced they are cutting their aid to Egypt, or threatening to do that, [we say that] Arab and Muslim nations are rich ... and will not hesitate to help Egypt," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said yesterday in a statement, according to Agence France-Presse.
The number of international allies of Egypt's interim government has dwindled as the death toll rises, yesterday cresting over 900. But Saudi Arabia has only doubled down on its backing of the military government, which it has said is fighting "terrorism and sedition."
One of the biggest questions prompted by Egypt's bloodshed has been whether the United States would classify the military ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi as a coup, thus requiring it to cut off aid. But it appears as if the US has already put a hold on the money under the radar. That avoids a public determination on the coup question that would be hard to walk back from.
The Obama administration did not feel obligated to make a public announcement because the $585 million of pledged aid is not due until the end of September, making the suspension essentially theoretical at this point, The Daily Beast reports.
But two administration officials told The Daily Beast that administration lawyers decided it was best to observe the law restricting military aid on a temporary basis, as if there had been a coup designation, while at the same time deciding that the law did not require a public announcement on whether a coup took place.
“The decision was we’re going to avoid saying it was a coup, but to stay on the safe side of the law, we are going to act as if the designation has been made for now,” said one administration official. “By not announcing the decision, it gives the administration the flexibility to reverse it.”
Reuters reports that Gulf monarchs, who were shaken by the protests that swept Egypt and several other countries in the region, see Morsi's ouster as a chance to restore stability in the region "and are determined to spend their oil billions to bring back trusted friends." That is particularly true in Egypt, which was long Riyadh's "most powerful" ally in the Middle East. Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has close ties with the Saudi monarch after serving in Riyadh for years.
The Saudis see well-organized Islamist movements like Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as "the only ones that could emerge to challenge their rule," a Saudi journalist told Reuters.
To the monarchy, the Brotherhood is an "ideological competitor with an aggressively activist political doctrine" that opposes Riyadh's relationship with the US and seeks to destabilize its government, according to Reuters.
The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have also shown their backing for the military with their pocketbooks. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pledged a combined $8 billion within days of Morsi's ouster, and Kuwait chipped in $4 billion of its own. That $12 billion dwarfs the $1.3 billion in aid provided by the US annually.
Saudi Arabia's willingness to strike out at the US on a foreign policy issue shows how concerned it was about the Brotherhood's rise, The Washington Post reports.
But the unusually bold foray into foreign policy represents a big risk for the traditionally staid and cautious kingdom, jeopardizing its reputation as the leader of the Muslim world, reigniting a simmering power struggle with rivals Qatar and Turkey, and potentially harming its relationship with Washington.
That Saudi Arabia is prepared to confront Washington over the crisis is an indicator of how deeply Saudi leaders were unsettled by the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood consolidating its hold over the Arab world’s most populous nation, analysts say.
“It’s not about expansionism,” said Gamal Soltan, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo. “The Saudis are doing these things out of fear rather than greed.”
Meanwhile, Qatar and Turkey have maintained their support for the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, although both have taken hits on the regional stage that make their backing less decisive than Saudi Arabia's.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Mr. Sisi to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose heavy handed crackdown on a popular uprising prompted a civil war that has left roughly 100,000 Syrians dead. “Bashar or Sisi, there is no difference between them,” Mr. Erdogan said, according to the Washington Post.
Parts of US aid temporarily on hold include the $585 million of $1.3 billion in fiscal 2013 foreign military financing due in September, the delivery of Apache helicopters already paid for, and economic support funds for programs that would directly benefit the Egyptian government, the Daily Beast reports.
That money may not make much of a difference in the Egyptian military's political calculations, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned yesterday.
“Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited,” he said, according to the Daily Beast. “It’s up to the Egyptian people. And they are a large, great, sovereign nation. And it will be their responsibility to sort this out.”
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The European Union has thrown delivery of billions of aid dollars into question as it meets "urgently" to coordinate a response to Egypt in the aftermath of a crackdown there that has killed almost 900 people in five days. Violence has skyrocketed since the military-backed interim government cleared two camps of supporters of ousted leader Mohammed Morsi in Cairo on Aug. 14.
Ahead of the meeting today, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, released a statement saying the EU is “firmly engaged in efforts to promote an end to violence, resumption of political dialogue, and return to a democratic process.”
“The EU has been at Egypt's side in the last two years while it has moved towards democracy. We have met frequently and engaged actively Egypt's leaders and the new political forces that have emerged. The calls for democracy and fundamental freedoms from the Egyptian population cannot be disregarded, much less washed away in blood,” it read.
The meeting of ambassadors of 28 members of the EU will be followed by one of foreign ministers later this week.
Mr. Morsi was elected leader of Egypt a little more than a year ago, after the 2011 revolution that ended the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak. Morsi's rule became increasingly contested, giving rise to mass protests and his ouster by the military in early July. His Muslim Brotherhood supporters have demanded his reinstatement.
On Sunday, the head of Egypt’s armed forces attempted to downplay global claims of heavyhandedness, saying "there is room for everyone.” But violence continues to rock the country as the two sides face off. At least three dozen Morsi supporters were killed Sunday as they attempted to escape a prison. The Muslim Brotherhood described the incident as "cold-blooded killing," reports the BBC. A day later, at least 24 policemen were killed in a militant ambush on the Sinai Peninsula.
The EU pledged $6.7 billion in grants and loans last November to help Egypt transition to democracy.
According to The Wall Street Journal, half of that money was to come from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But the funds were contingent upon the implementation of reforms, and very little has yet been disbursed.
Diplomats told the Journal that Europeans need to “balance their desire to send a signal to Egyptian authorities with the potential harm of cutting off support for vital social or infrastructure projects.”
EU officials told the Financial Times that blocking funds was “very much on the table.” “The current situation is not making it possible for Egyptian authorities to fulfill many of those conditions so they cannot get the money that was put at their potential disposal [in November],” an EU official told the British paper.
Decisions made today in Brussels will need to be approved by EU foreign ministers, who could meet Wednesday or Thursday.
An editorial in the United Arab Emirates' Khaleej Times said suspending aid would send an important message to the world.
“While the EU has little economic leverage in Egypt, its actions would act as precedent for other countries,” the paper writes. “The EU’s emergency talks with aid at risk, and diplomatic rupture on the cards, is likely to embolden the United States, which is also thinking on the same lines.”
Individual European countries have already reacted to the violence in Egypt, with Denmark taking the lead in suspending two bilateral aid projects last week, reports the EU Observer. That move echoes condemnation across the globe, which Egypt has rejected. "The crisis in Egypt is an internal Egyptian
matter, and all foreign interference will be rejected,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi said, according to Haaretz.
The EU has attempted to broker peace between the two sides. Foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton was the first political official to meet with Morsi since his ouster, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
But ultimately, the EU was unable to deter last week’s violence. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt noted the limits of the EU’s influence, even though EU Middle East envoy Bernardino Leon also pleaded with army chiefs before last week’s deadly violence: "We went flat out … I think we did everything we could have done,” he is quoted by the EU Observer as having said.
The number of victims in last week's standoff could rise. “These are not small numbers; we need to see a truce and a political process,” a Cairo-based European diplomat told Ahram Online.
But diplomats who spoke to the Egyptian paper said that were not hopeful that EU moves would make a big difference. "Still, in Brussels Monday, informed sources say, the EU would 'reflect' concern on the developments in Egypt but would not go too far," the paper reports.