Snipers fire at UN chemical weapons team in Syria

The United Nations inspectors were heading to the site of last week's alleged chemical weapons attack when unidentified gunmen forced the convoy to retreat.

Majdi Mohammed/AP/File
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah earlier this month. Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, called on the Syrian government to allow the UN team now in Damascus to swiftly investigate an alleged chemical weapon attack.

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United Nations weapons inspectors were forced to turn back from visiting the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria after their vehicles came under fire from snipers on Monday. 

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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