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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.