Chemical weapons in Syria: Latest suspicions revive 'red line' debate

Syrian opposition groups allege that the regime killed more than 1,300 people with the help of chemical weapons. The government denies the reports.

Hussein Malla/AP
Syrian women who live in Beirut, light candles during a vigil against the alleged chemical weapons attack on the suburbs of Damascus, in front the United Nations headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday.

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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.

"If the [United Nations] Security Council cannot do it, decisions will be made otherwise," Mr. Fabius said, according to CNN.

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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