Blog post, 21 August 2013: The obvious question raised by today's claims of chemical weapons attacks near Damascus is what the Assad regime could expect to gain, if indeed it was responsible for them.
Many are asking this question out of scepticism about the reports. Why do it when UN weapons inspectors are sitting in their hotel just a few miles from the scene? Why use chemicals when the regime seems to be making progress on the military front by more conventional means?
These are reasonable questions but they don't necessarily reflect the Assad regime's thought processes: the Baathist mentality has its own kind of logic.
Let's suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that the regime did use some kind of toxic agent. What are the UN inspectors going to do about it?
Precise details of the inspectors' mandate are secret but the New York Times says:
"After months of negotiation with the Syrian government about access to the country, the United Nations said a team of inspectors would investigate three sites, including the village of Khan al-Assal near the northern city of Aleppo, where both sides have accused the other of a chemical attack on March 19 that killed dozens of people.
"The location of the other two sites has not been made public, and the United Nations team has said it will seek to determine only if chemical weapons were used, not who used them."
It appears from this that today's attacks (it that's what they were) are not included, and that even if they were the inspectors would not be empowered to attribute responsibility for them.
The UN can ask to include today's events of course, but the regime could then drag out discussions until there is little or nothing to be found. Evidence may surface through other channels, only to be dismissed by the regime as coming from partisan sources.
The upshot of this is that the chances of the regime being caught red-handed, and convincingly so, are fairly slim. At this stage in the conflict, though, it probably doesn't matter too much to the regime whether it is caught red-handed or not (as I shall explain in a moment).
On the question of what the regime might gain militarily from such attacks, the answer may be very little. But that assumes the regime is thinking only in military terms, when the real purpose could be political. One pointer is this direction (though it might conceivably be nothing more than coincidence) is that the alleged attacks came on the one-year anniversary of President Obama's famous "red line" warning against the use of chemical or biological weapons in Syria – a warning that Obama has been noticeably reluctant to act upon.
As I suggested in a previous blog post, whatever the suspicions about Syrian use of chemical weapons, Obama would probably prefer the charges to remain unproven – in order to avoid difficult decisions over how to respond.
Internationally, the Syrian regime sees itself as part of the "resistance" bloc, constantly giving the finger to the US and other western countries, as well as to its Arab foes. Assad's strategy from the beginning of the uprising has been to ratchet up the violence step by step, to see what he can get away with, before taking it up another notch.
Given this background, Assad may now be calculating that the time is ripe to cross Obama's red line with impunity. It's a risk, but if he succeeds he will have demonstrated once and for all that where Syria is concerned the "international community" is impotent and in total disarray.
Of course, there are expressions of alarm from many capitals, and calls for the UN security council to meet. But it is difficult to see what they can actually do, considering that the public have so far been in no mood for military action.
There is also, of course, the parallel question of Egypt. If Sisi can massacre people in Egypt with guns while the US dithers over what to do about aid, is it really very different if Assad massacres them with chemicals? Either way, the people are dead.
So a short alternative answer to the question "why?" is that Assad has little to lose now from using chemical weapons and potentially a lot to gain on the political front. He may well be thinking: "If I can get away with this I can get away with anything." And he could be right.
Blog post, 22 August 2013: At an emergency meeting last night the UN Security Council in effect gave the Syrian regime a green light for chemical attacks on its citizens.
The council issued a feeble call for “clarity” in response to the deaths of hundreds of people near Damascus yesterday – deaths that appear to have been caused by some kind of toxic gas.
Most importantly, the statement did not specifically demand a UN investigation, even though UN weapons inspectors are currently in Damascus to investigate earlier reports of chemical weapons use. Reuters adds:
“An earlier western-drafted statement submitted to the council, seen by Reuters, was not approved. The final version of the statement was watered down to accommodate objections from Russia and China, diplomats said. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed previous Western efforts to impose UN penalties on Assad.”
Meanwhile, al-Jazeera’s reporter in New York, John Terrett,described the council’s statement as "very vague, bland and tepid".
"The Security Council is hobbled on the issue of Syria, they can't agree on anything," he said.
Whether or not the Assad regime was actually responsible for yesterday’s mass slaughter (and on current evidence it seems very likely that it was), the UN’s impotence over Syria is now absolutely clear. Essentially, the message to Assad from last night’s meeting was that he has nothing to fear from the Security Council if and when he does carry out chemical attacks.
Yesterday’s reported attacks came on the one-year anniversary of President Obama's famous "red line" press conference where hesaid:
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime – but also to other players on the ground – that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.
"That would change my calculus; that would change my equation."
Obama was right that it would be a game-changer, but it appears to be a game-changer for Assad, not for Obama. As far as the UN is concerned, Assad can now do more or less what he likes.
This leaves the question of whether the United States or other countries will be prepared to take serious action outside the UN if enough proof emerges that yesterday’s events were indeed a chemical attack by the Syrian regime.
An editorial in the Washington Post calls for a tougher American stance, through direct retaliation and the creation of a no-fly zone:
“A White House statement issued Wednesday did not repeat the president’s vow of no tolerance. Instead, it said that “those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable,” as if the matter could be handled by a criminal investigation.
“The administration urged the Syrian government to cooperate with a UN team that is already in Damascus to investigate previous chemical weapons incidents. It would be unprecedented for the Assad regime to comply.
“The United States should be using its own resources to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the opposition’s reports of large-scale use of gas against civilians are accurate. If they are, Mr Obama should deliver on his vow not to tolerate such crimes – by ordering direct US retaliation against the Syrian military forces responsible and by adopting a plan to protect civilians in southern Syria with a no-fly zone.”
Whether Obama will buy that is another matter. The US is still haunted by the Bush administration’s fiasco over Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the public mood, at least before yesterday’s horror, has been strongly against direct military action. The military course itself is also fraught with potential problems.
Thus Obama may actually be quite relieved that the UN isn’t pressing harder to discover the truth about yesterday’s events in Syria. So long as the charges against Assad to remain unproven, Obama can avoid difficult decisions over how to respond while blaming Russia and China for their obstruction in the Security Council.
But this has implications which go far beyond Syria. It’s worth noting that number of the deaths in Damascus yesterday (apparently running into the hundreds) may turn out to be smaller than the number of recent deaths in Egypt as a result of the military takeover there – though in Egypt people were killed mainly by guns.
Does this make a difference? For a long time, the international consensus has been that it does. Chemicals, along with nuclear and biological weapons, are treated as a special class of weaponry that needs to be controlled.If Assad is allowed to use chemical weapons in Syria with impunity it will be a major step on the slope towards normalising them.
Blog post, 25 August 2013: In a rare moment of international consensus over Syria, everyone now seems to accept that chemical weapons were used near Damascus last Wednesday. The continuing dispute is about who used them, with Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime claiming that rebel fighters were responsible.
Regardless of who did it, the use of chemical weapons has implications far beyond Syria itself. It's a matter of global concern. Internationally, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are treated as a special class of weaponry that needs to be controlled. If that position is to be maintained, anyone who uses them must face international retribution – otherwise, their use will gradually become normalised.
A very important principle is at stake here – a principle so important that it should be separated, as far as is possible, from other issues in the Syrian conflict as well as the politics of that conflict. Addressing the use of chemical weapons in Syria should be a goal in itself; it should not become the pretext for a generalised direct military intervention of the kind that happened in Iraq in 2003.
That said, it's difficult to see what form a response might take in Syria (and, as I argued last week, that was probably central to Assad's calculations in launching the chemical attacks – assuming they did indeed come from the regime). Bombing chemical weapons facilities could be hazardous and a no-fly zone would not necessarily stop attacks since it's unclear whether the chemicals last week were launched from the air.
An Iraq-style attempt to locate and dismantle Assad's chemical weapons, besides being largely impractical in the present circumstances, would politicise the issue and kick it into touch. The regime justifies its possession of chemical weapons as the poor man's defence against Israel's nuclear arsenal – and Israel, along with North Korea, India, Pakistan and South Sudan, is one of the five countries worldwide that do not accept the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Equally, if it did turn out that rebel fighters were responsible, some course of action would be needed to deal with that too.
Although it seems very likely that the regime was responsible for the attacks near Damascus last Wednesday, the evidence so far made public is still less than required to pronounce Assad indisputably guilty. At the same time, though, the regime's behaviour scarcely suggests it believes its own claims of innocence and as yet no credible evidence has been produced that points to rebel fighters as the culprits.
The claims put forward so far by Russia and the Syrian regime are laughably crude and look more like an attempt to cause confusion than to persuade anyone of the truth.
On Friday, for example, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich, cited "reports circulating on the internet" that videos said to show victims of the Wednesday's massacre had been posted on YouTube several hours before it happened. Others pointed out that a Reuters report of the massacre had also appeared on at least one website with the previous day's date.
This was obviously the result of automated time-stamping in different time zones around the world (see explanations here and here) but the fact that Lukashevich thought it worthy of comment suggests the Russian propagandists are scraping the barrel for anything that might justify their position.
The Syrian regime, assisted by the Russians, has been trying for some time to link rebel fighters to "chemicals" and to link supplies of "chemicals" to Arab states opposing the regime.
Last month Russia Today broadcast clips from Syrian state TV (see below) of poisonous materials allegedly found in a rebel "laboratory". The only identifiable substance in the video was a series of bags labelled as caustic soda produced in Saudi Arabia. Caustic soda has multiple everyday uses, though it can also be used to neutralise sarin.
Images of other supposedly sinister rebel-held equipment include supplies from the Qatari-German Company for Medical Devices (see below).
One regular pro-regime Tweeter (@ana_cherine) re-posted the picture yesterday with a caption saying:
"Vaccines found in FSA warehouse where chemical weapons were stored in Jobar #Syria. Products of #Qatar & #Germany"
Apart from the ludicrous idea that vaccines are a protection against chemical weapons, what the pictures show is standard medical equipment.
The label "Q-Flow" refers to an intravenous cannula system made by the Qatari-German company. More detailed images in a video (here, at 1 minute 25 seconds) shows a pack of Maxitex surgical gloves and ampoules that are said to contain atropine.
Regarding atropine, the Syrian regime is using exactly the same argument that the US used in connection with atropine and Iraq in 2002 – guilt by association.
Atropine is used for treating various heart and respiratory disorders. It is also the drug of choice in cases of organophospate (pesticide) poisoning. In 2002, scare stories in the American media largely ignored these uses and instead highlighted it as a well known antidote to nerve gas (which it is too), and the Bush administration moved to block Iraq's supplies.
For the Bush administration, possession of something that could protect against chemical weapons was deemed to be evidence of possessing the weapons themselves. "If the Iraqis were going to use nerve agents," one US official explained, "they would want to take steps to protect their own soldiers, if not their population." The Assad regime now seems to be playing the same game.
In the latest development in this propaganda war, Syrian state TV said yesterday that troops had found "chemical agents" in rebel tunnels. An unidentified "news source" was quoted as saying: "Army heroes are entering the tunnels of the terrorists and saw chemical agents ... In some cases, soldiers are suffocating while entering Jobar. Ambulances came to rescue the people suffocating in Jobar."
It will be interesting to see what further evidence they produce in connection with this.
Blog post, 26 August 2013: There's now little doubt that the US is planning air strikes in Syria in response to last week's chemical attacks near Damascus – and that the strikes will go ahead with or without approval from the UN Security Council. The US will be supported in this politically, if not militarily, by a number of western and non-western countries.
According to journalist Mahir Zeynalov 33 countries will be involved, with France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan playing a leading role. This morning Turkey also declared its support.
In Britain, the Independent newspaper says the air strikes will come "within two weeks". The paper quotes Downing Street sources as insisting that strikes will be specifically related to the issue of chemical weapons and not a general intervention in the Syrian conflict:
"The aim here is to have a clear, concrete response from the international community that deters further outrages and makes clear that we will stand up to the prohibition of chemical weapons. We need to show that their use will not go unchecked ...
"This is not about trying to shape the outcome of the Syrian conflict by military means. This is focused on the incident that happened on Wednesday."
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon made a similar point earlier today when he told reporters: "We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity."
As far as the legality of air strikes is concerned, the US and Britain have apparently not ruled out the possibility of seeking a Security Council resolution, though it is likely to be blocked unless Russia has a sudden change of heart.
However, James Blitz in the Financial Times [subscription] suggests other options are available:
"There are precedents for legal action without UN backing. The US and its allies conducted the 78-day bombardment of Serbia in 1998 to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. This had no UN authorisation. Instead, then president Bill Clinton invoked the argument that it was right to protect people in danger. Few, if any, people today suggest that this was not a just war.
"The US, in the meantime, could argue that Syria is in breach of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which outlaws the use in war of poison gas. Since the end of the first world war, global powers have placed a ban on the use of chemical weapons, especially nerve agents. The US could now make the argument that a military response is justified to prevent the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons becoming a new norm of warfare."
As for the nature of an attack, Blitz suggests it would be "a one-off intervention" that sends "a severe warning shot to the [Syrian] regime" in order to "deter Assad from allowing chemical weapons to be used in this way again". He points out that this could cause civilian casualties, but "failure to take any meaningful action at all would give the Assad regime the green light to use chemical weapons attacks on civilian population with even greater impunity".
Meanwhile, the 20 UN weapon inspectors in Damascus have reportedly set off today to visit the scene of last Wednesday's attacks after the regime finally granted them permission. Doubts have been raised about how much evidence they are likely to find at this stage and it's unclear whether they will be allowed to do anything more than attempt to establish whether chemical weapons were used.
Their original mandate, agreed with the Syrian regime when they arrived in Syria to investigate other suspected chemical attacks, did not allow them to determine who was responsible for using such weapons – and this may also be the case with the most recent attacks. The BBC says "there is no indication that the mission's brief has changed".
Today's edition of the Emirates-based newspaper, The National, has an exclusive report claiming that Syrian military officers had not been told that the rockets they were firing contained chemical warheads. The story, by Phil Sands, quotes "a source from a well-connected family, who has contacts with both the opposition and regime loyalists" who says:
"We have heard from people close to the regime that the chemical missiles were handed out a few hours before the attacks.
"They didn't come from the ministry of defence but from air force intelligence, under orders from Hafez Maklouf [a cousin of Assad]. The army officers are saying they did not know there were chemical weapons. Even some of the people transporting them are saying they had no idea what was in the rockets – they thought they were conventional explosives."
The same report includes an account of events on Wednesday night provided by the opposition Syrian National Coalition [SNC] which is said to be "based on a timeline from residents inside the affected areas and information collected from sources inside the regime who leak information to the rebels".
The SNC, obviously, is not an impartial source but the amount of detail included in this version is certainly interesting:
"The SNC said rockets loaded with chemicals were delivered to General Tahir Hamid Khalil, and were later launched from a regime army base housing the 155 brigade.
"After a night of fierce fighting on Tuesday in an area on the edge of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta – once known for its clean natural water and lush orchards – regime troops moved back, leaving only aircraft overhead, the SNC said.
"At 2.30am on Wednesday, regime forces under the command of Gen Ghassan Abbas began launching the rockets, 16 of which were aimed at the eastern suburbs of Damascus, and hit Zamalka and Ain Tarma, densely populated areas in the Eastern Ghouta.
"As opposition emergency services responded to those initial chemical attacks, rockets armed with high explosive warheads were fired into the same area, hitting ambulance teams as they tried to help victims of the chemical strikes.
"At 4.21am, 18 more missiles were fired into eastern Damascus by troops loyal to Mr Al Assad, the SNC said. Another two missiles were aimed at Moadamiya, to the south-west of Damascus, an area known locally as the Western Ghouta.
"By 6am, dozens of people from Moadamiya had been taken to a local field hospital suffering from the effects of exposure to a still unidentified poison gas.
"At least five poison gas rockets were fired, according to the SNC, four landing in the Eastern Ghouta and one in Moadamiya. Strong winds pushed the gases out from their impact area in Zamalka across to Erbin, a neighbouring district, where more people died.
"According to the SNC's account, loyalist forces close to the attack area were issued orders from a 'high level' to wear gas masks in anticipation of the attacks."
Separately, on the internet, there are attempts to work out the firing position of rockets thought to be involved in the chemical attacks.
Photographs of rockets embedded in the ground (see below) show the direction of impact – and hence the direction from which they were fired. The task is to determine the exact direction of fire from clues in the photographs, such as buildings and shadows. There's more about this here and here.
Further analysis by blogger Brown Moses, using satellite photographs, appears to confirm that at least one of the rockets, labelled 197, was fired from the north, where the regime has a number of military positions.
Blog post, 27 August 2013: George Bush and the neocons have a lot to answer for. Their scheming over Iraq a decade ago has cost us dear and its long shadow still looms over foreign policy decisions – nowhere more so than on Syria where the Great Deception of 2002-2003 is making rational debate increasingly difficult.
Yesterday brought a deluge of war hysteria, some of it in the mainstream media, much in the social media (mainly anti-war hysteria, and much of it ill-informed – talk of an invasion, troops going in, a lack of exit strategies and of course the "false flag" theories that have become so popular).
This is not surprising, given the enormity of what Bush did. It's good that people are sceptical now and are asking questions about policy in Syria – it's a pity more people didn't do that over Iraq. The problem, though, is that the dreadful example of Iraq obscures the real picture regarding Syria. Syria is viewed as Iraq 2.0, and so the issue of chemical weapons in Syria is inevitably seen as a pretext for war and little else.
It is only by casting off this "Iraq mindset" that we can begin to grasp the realities of Syria and what to do about it.
There are three key differences between Iraq in 2002-2003 and Syria now:
1. Syria has chemical weapons, and the regime has said so itself.
2. President Obama has been palpably reluctant to get involved, directly and militarily, in Syria. American public opinion is strongly against it and there is no significant war lobby in Washington as there was when the neocons held sway.
3. The US does not particularly want Assad to be overthrown at the moment because it's too worried about what might follow.
Taking these points into account, it ought to be obvious that Obama is not contemplating a replay of the invasion of Iraq.
The current issue is actually very simple: what to do if someone uses chemical weapons. As I have argued in several previous blog posts, it's important to separate this as far as possible from the broader conflict in Syria and its politics. Chemical weapons are not just a matter of concern in Syria; they are a matter of concern for the whole world, since the world has banned their use.
This poses an invidious moral dilemma. One approach is to say that offenders must be held accountable – otherwise the ban on chemical weapons will become pointless. At the same time, though, holding the Syrian regime accountable is unlikely to be achieved without loss of life.
The alternative is to take no action. That avoids further immediate casualties but in the longer run also leads to a loss of life, probably on a larger scale, by giving a green light to further attacks in Syria and by helping to normalise the use of chemical weapons more generally.
The US, Britain and a number of other countries are now openly pursuing the first option. To do that effectively they will have to set aside any ideas of trying to "fix" Syria and focus instead on a single goal: sending a message the regime that use of chemical weapons will have serious consequences now and in the future.
So far, that seems to be what the Americans and the British have in mind: a series of air strikes against military targets (and especially any associated with chemical weapons) lasting no more than a few days. But how heavy it would need to be is difficult to judge: too light and the regime would shrug it off as a slap on the wrist; too heavy and the message about chemical weapons could be lost in the general mayhem of the ongoing conflict.
Blog post, 28 August 2013: In separate statements on Monday and Tuesday, secretary of state John Kerry and White House spokesman Jay Carney explained why the US believes the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus last week.
Kerry said the reported number of victims and their symptoms "strongly indicate ... that chemical weapons were used in Syria". He continued:
"Moreover, we know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place."
Yesterday, Carney said:
"We have established with a high degree of confidence that the Syria regime has used chemical weapons already in this conflict. We have made clear that it is our firm assessment that the Syrian regime has maintained control of the stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria throughout this conflict. It is also the case that the Syrian regime has the rocket capacity to deliver the chemical weapons as they were delivered with repugnant results on August 21 outside of Damascus."
Their point, basically, was that the Syrian regime is the only real suspect. Nobody has produced any evidence of substance to back up the regime's claim that rebel fighters were responsible. The regime said earlier that it would provide the evidence but it hasn't done so. That, together with its behaviour since the attacks – its treatment of the UN weapons inspectors, for example – reinforces the conclusion that its claim is spurious.
Theories circulating on the internet that seek to exonerate the regime – including the Russian foreign ministry's claim that reports of the massacre were published before it happened – have also been widely debunked (see here, for example).
One claim still circulating, based on a Daily Mail story last January, is that Qatar had been trying to obtain a chemical weapon in order to "frame" the Syrian regime. The story was later deleted from the Mail's website – which of course only added to the suspicions of conspiracy theorists.
The reason for its deletion was that the email which supposedly provided the evidence turned out to be a fake. In April, the Daily Mail published an apology to those who had been named in the article and said it had paid them "substantial damages".
In their statement to the media, both Kerry and Carney have said the US will provide more information about last Wednesday's attacks during the next few days (with Carney suggesting it will come this week), so it's interesting to consider what that information might be.
Although sarin is strongly suspected, the US has said nothing officially about the type of chemical used. There's no doubt that it killed many people, but identifying it would would fill in an important gap.
To identify it in a way that would not be open to challenges is less easy than it sounds. The "gold standard" in such cases is to obtain soil, blood and other environmental samples that all test positive. A Foreign Policy article from last June explains just how difficult that can be.
With samples smuggled out of the country there are questions about chain of custody between sampling and testing. There have also been suggestions that the Syrian regime could have mixed sarin with CS gas or other chemicals to confuse testing.
According to the Foreign Policy article, the US has previously obtained samples from Syria which did test positive for sarin and it quotes an official as saying "It's impossible that the opposition is faking the stuff in so many instances in so many locations."
THE DELIVERY SYSTEM
In his media briefing yesterday, Carney talked repeatedly about Syrian rockets:
"The Syrian regime has the rocket capacity to deliver the chemical weapons as they were delivered with repugnant results on August 21 outside of Damascus."
"We know that the regime maintains custody of the chemical weapons in Syria and uses the types of rockets that were used to deliver chemical weapons on August 21."
"It is our conviction that the Syrian regime has the rocket capability that was employed to devastating effect in this chemical weapons attack."
"The regime ... has the rockets and the rocket capability that were employed in this chemical weapons attack."
This implies the US has identified the type of rocket used last week, and hopefully it will make the details public. If it can be established that these rockets are used only by the regime and not by the rebels, the case against Assad will be virtually watertight.
Brown Moses, the blogger who specialises in analysing weaponry from the Syrian conflict, has suggested that the rocket concerned may be this one, and it would be interesting to know if the US agrees.
Brown Moses has also studied images of a canister which was photographed by a UN inspector (see video) and suggests it's the warhead from a Soviet 140mm M14 artillery rocket which can be used to carry 2.2kg of sarin.
There have been several reports of regime communications relating to last week's attack being intercepted. If true, details of the conversations would help to build a rock-solid case.
Yesterday, Foreign Policy said US intelligence had "overheard" what claimed to be "panicked phone calls" from an official at the Syrian defence ministry to a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers about last Wednesday's attacks.
There have also been reports that Israeli intelligence intercepted "a conversation between high-ranking regime officials regarding the use of chemical agents at the time of the attack". Details of the conversation have not been published but it is said to show that the regime was responsible for the use of nonconventional weapons.
Some of this tallies with a story published in The National (from opposition sources) that that "some of the army officers involved had tried to distance themselves from what happened, and insisted they were not told the rockets they were firing were loaded with toxins".
THE REGIME'S MOTIVE
Knowing more about these intercepts, assuming they exist, could help to clear up the question of why the regime would have decided to use these weapons. In a previous blog post I suggested it could have been a deliberate provocation – Assad choosing to cross Obama's "red line" at a time when he thought he could get away with it.
Another possibility is that it was more of a cock-up – at least as far as the large number of civilian casualties was concerned. A report in Le Monde, which has not received much attention outside France, alleges that poison gas has been used in Syria more than is generally realised.
It has been "used occasionally in specific locations by government forces to attack the areas of toughest fighting with the encroaching opposition rebels", the report says. Because its use has been on a small scale, this has previously avoided "the kind of massive spread of toxic chemicals that would easily constitute irrefutable proof".
If that is true, the Syrian military may not have been expecting the devastating consequences seen last week.
Blog post, 29 August 2013: Bashar al-Assad can relax now, at least for a while. What should have been a clear international response to one of the most dreadful crimes imaginable – the mass slaughter of civilians with poison gas – has descended into confusion and even farce.
The British parliament meets today – urgently recalled from its summer siesta – for a debate about Syria that won't actually decide anything, because the prime minister has been out-manouevred.
Prime minister Cameron had come under pressure from his own Conservative MPs to recall parliament if military action was contemplated before normal parliamentary business resumes next week. After a brief hesitation, Cameron agreed to that and signalled, by implication, that military action was imminent.
His problem now is that if he seeks approval for such action he may well lose the vote. His coalition government (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) has a majority of 77 but several dozen Conservative members (estimates range from 30 to 70) seem unlikely to support him.
On the opposition side, Labour leader Ed Miliband says his party will not support action unless certain conditions are met. He is demanding to see (1) the results of UN weapons inspections, (2) compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, and (3) clear legal advice that any strike is within international law.
What this means in practice is that there will have to be a second debate on Syria, at some unspecified time in the future, before Britain can become involved in any military action.
In terms of British politics, though, the real issue here is not Syria but the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Tony Blair's con trick over non-existent weapons. The British public are resentful of having been hoodwinked then and the result now is extreme scepticism about any form of military intervention. While scepticism is usually healthy, some of this is so extreme as to be perverse. I have met people who simply refuse to believe the Assad regime has chemical weapons, even though the regime itself has said it does.
Further alarm bells rang this week when the co-architect of the Iraq catastrophe, Blair himself, wrote an article for The Times telling everyone to stop wringing their hands and get on with sorting out Assad.
Similar scepticism can be found among MPs, too. They have to listen to their constituents if they want to be re-elected and they don't want to be perceived as gullible fools. Having been fooled by one British prime minister over Iraq, they are determined not to be fooled by another prime minister over Syria. The most likely result of this is that they will end up being fooled by Bashar al-Assad instead, but we shall see in due course.
The key demands set by the Labour opposition leader all reflect the "Iraq war mindset" – avoiding a repeat of the mistakes made in 2003 (which is important) but less concerned with determining the most effective course of action over Syria now. He ought to be demanding absolute clarity about the goal, scope and nature of any intervention but so far that doesn't seem to be a major priority.
These developments in Britain will probably force President Obama to put his plans on hold. He doesn't want the US to act unilaterally in Syria and although he has other allies, acting without Britain at his side is almost inconceivable. Britain's absence would be exploited politically by his critics.
Britain also made moves at the UN yesterday with a draft resolution for the Security Council. As expected, it didn't get very far and if it does eventually come to a vote, Russia – as Syria's staunchest ally – will block it. This is certainly a futile exercise, but not entirely pointless.
Writing in the Guardian, Martin Kettle sees it as "another concession to an approach based on greater legitimacy":
"It was probably doomed because of Russia's cold war mentality veto. A similar fate probably awaits the [weapons] inspection report. But a veto should not mean that no action can be taken once the process has been given a proper chance. If Vladimir Putin gets to decide what is or is not legal, then international law is an ass. But trying everything to make the system work is the right thing to do."
So, as things now stand, it looks as if nothing much will happen, either in the Security Council or the British parliament, until the UN weapons inspectors issue their report. At present, nobody knows when that will be.
After months of prevarication about allowing the inspectors in, the Syrian regime now seems eager to have them stay as long as possible. Yesterday, it demanded that they inspect three new "chemical attacks" allegedly carried out by rebel fighters. Since the inspectors are not allowed to apportion blame for attacks (at the regime's own insistence) it is unclear what the regime expects this to prove and the main aim is probably to cause more delay and confusion. Waiting for the inspectors is likely to have a similar effect in the Security Council and the British parliament without necessarily bringing matters to a conclusion, especially if the report does little more than identify the chemicals involved in attacks.
Meanwhile, large sections of the media have been busy producing maps that show the likely targets for airstrikes in Syria. Not that they are particularly giving away any secrets, since Assad is perfectly capable of working out the targets himself. But the delay does give him time to prepare.
Reuters reported yesterday that Assad's forces appear to have already evacuated "most personnel from army and security command headquarters in central Damascus":
Among the buildings that have been partially evacuated are the General Staff Command Building on Umayyad Square, the nearby airforce command and the security compounds in the Western Kfar Souseh districts, residents of the area and a Free Syrian Army rebel source said ...
Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior military defector, said from an undisclosed location in Syria that based on Free Syrian Army intelligence gatherings, the general staff command had been moved to an alternative compound in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains north of Damascus.
"Various commands are being moved to schools and underground bunkers. But I am not sure it is going to do much good for the regime," Sheikh said.
Another resident who lives at the foothills of Qasioun, the mountain in the middle of the city in which elite praetorian guard units are based, said the boom of artillery, usually heard daily form the 105th battalion of the Republican Guards, had fallen silent on Wednesday.
"They have been lots of army trucks descending from Qasioun. It seems they have evacuated the 105 battalion headquarters," the resident said.
As a result, if airstrikes do eventually go ahead, Obama may have to choose between bombing empty military buildings or new military positions where the risk of civilian casualties will be far higher.
Blog post, 30 August 2013: Following last week's meeting of the UN Security Council which in effect gave a green light for chemical attacks in Syria, the Assad regime now has a second green light – this time from Britain.
Yesterday's parliamentary debate ended in a dramatic defeat for the government which means that Britain will not be taking part in any American-led military action. The vote also raises questions about what position Britain will adopt in future discussions of Syria at the Security Council.
Reacting to his defeat in the House of Commons, prime minister David Cameron told MPs:
"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 ...
"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."
A jubilant editorial in today's Guardian praises Ed Miliband, the Labour opposition leader, for his stand and hails the result as a classic example of "the legislature holding the executive to account".
Arab journalist Hassan Hassan, on the other hand, sees it as a case of democracy saving a dictator.
Debate about Syria in Britain – among politician and the public – has been framed by the experience with Iraq 10 years ago. Having been deceived by prime minister Tony Blair in 2003, MPs were bending over backwards not to fall into a similar trap with Cameron and Syria. But in their eagerness to avoid that they have now fallen into the hands of Bashar al-Assad.
The result of Blair's trickery is that the level of proof required for military intervention is not merely high (as it should be) but unrealistically high. In this, Cameron has got himself neatly off the hook by saying that he defers to the will of parliament and the British people, even though he disagrees with it. But the decision may yet come back to haunt Labour leader Miliband and his supporters.
If Obama launches airstrikes and they turn into a disaster or fail to deter Assad, Miliband can claim vindication. On the other hand, if Assad feels empowered to commit more chemical atrocities then fingers will start pointing at Miliband.
Obviously, things would be a lot easier if we had a "smoking gun" in connection with last week's chemical attacks. We don't have one at present and we may never get one. There are hopes that the UN inspectors will identify the chemicals used, and they may also identify the weaponry used to deliver them. That would be helpful but it would still not be a smoking gun – and the inspectors' mandate specifically excludes establishing who is to blame.
Realistically, though, there are only two possible suspects – the regime or the rebel fighters. If one of these can be eliminated the smoking gun argument becomes much less relevant.
That, basically, is what the British government's Joint Intelligence Committee did in its report issued yesterday. It stated very clearly that the rebels could not have been responsible:
"It is being claimed, including by the regime, that the attacks were either faked or undertaken by the Syrian Armed Opposition. We have tested this assertion using a wide range of intelligence and open sources, and invited HMG and outside experts to help us establish whether such a thing is possible.
"There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW (chemical weapons) by the opposition. The [committee] has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility."
"There is no credible evidence that any opposition group has used CW. A number continue to seek a CW capability, but none currently has the capability to conduct a CW attack on this scale."
If this is true, the committee's view that "it is highly likely" the regime was responsible for last week's attacks looks like an understatement.
As far as the regime's responsibility is concerned, the reason given for the committee's caution – the only reason – was that it had failed to establish "the regime's precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time". Even so, the report says there is "a limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks and that they were conducted to help clear the opposition from strategic parts of Damascus".
Like the British intelligence report issued a day earlier, it firmly dismisses the idea that rebels could have carried out the attacks:
"We assess that the opposition has not used chemical weapons."
"We have seen no indication that the opposition has carried out a large-scale, coordinated rocket and artillery attack like the one that occurred on August 21."
The most interesting part of the American report, though, is that the US appears to have substantial information about the attacks themselves:
"Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of 'Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21 near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin.
"On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilisation of gas masks. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.
"Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21. Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, 'Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu'addamiyah.
"This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack ...
"We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21. We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence.
"On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighbourhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the 24 hour period after the attack, we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days. We continued to see indications of sustained shelling in the neighbourhoods up until the morning of August 26."
The report suggests a military context which might explain why the regime resorted to chemical weapons in this area at the time. It says the regime has used on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs.
"We assess that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory. In this regard, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal, including air power and ballistic missiles, which they indiscriminately use against the opposition.
"The Syrian regime has initiated an effort to rid the Damascus suburbs of opposition forces using the area as a base to stage attacks against regime targets in the capital. The regime has failed to clear dozens of Damascus neighbourhoods of opposition elements, including neighbourhoods targeted on August 21, despite employing nearly all of its conventional weapons systems. We assess that the regime's frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21."
All this is described in the report as a "high confidence" assessment which is "the strongest position that the US Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation" and, if true, considerably reinforces the case against the Assad regime.
The difficulty, of course, is that we (the public) don't have access to the original intelligence data and can't make a judgment on the quality of the intelligence sources, so we have to take a lot on trust. However, some of the classified information is being provided to members of Congress who – as secretary of state John Kerry pointed out yesterday – are representatives of the American people.
There are often good reasons for such secrecy – you don't necessarily want the other side to find out exactly how much you know or how you found out – but that can also provide cover for abuse, as happened with Iraq. Inevitably there will be people who suspect public opinion is being manipulated and no one can be 100% sure that it is not.
However, it is difficult to see why, on this occasion, the Obama administration would want to hype it up. Obama is not Bush. Bush was looking for reasons to launch a war in Iraq and was surrounded by lots of others egging him on. That is not the case at all with Obama and Syria. All along, he has been reluctant to get directly involved in Syria militarily. All the signs indicate that he would much prefer not to have the Syrian chemical weapons file on his desk awaiting his formal decision.
Blog post. 31 August 2013: There's still a lot of confusion among commentators over the purpose of any US-led military action in Syria. Some see the chemical weapons attacks as a backdoor way to reshape Syria's internal conflict. Others argue that if it isn't a backdoor way to do that, it ought to be.
Those in the latter camp include some serious heavyweights like Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman writes:
"If the US is to intervene in Syria, its options must have some strategic meaning and a chance of producing lasting success. They must have a reasonable chance of bringing stability to Syria, of limiting the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence, of halting the spillover of the Syrian struggle into nearby states, and helping to deal with the broader humanitarian crisis."
This, in my view, is absolutely wrong. The chemical weapons issue should be kept as separate as possible from the broader conflict – and that, as far as anyone can tell, is what Obama intends to do.
The president spelled it out yet again, yesterday:
"I repeat, we’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach. What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there’s not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that’s taking place in Syria."
Some of Obama's critics see this as an attempt to save face after Assad crossed the red line that the president set a year ago. But it's far more important than that. Use of chemical weapons in Syria, or anywhere else for that matter, poses a direct challenge to the rule of international law, and international law is something that we all need, whether we are conscious of that or not.
We are all familiar with national laws but international law – the idea that states, as well as citizens, must behave themselves – is a relatively new development. The body of international law has grown enormously during the last century or so and will continue growing in the future, probably at an even faster rate, as a result of globalisation.
When it comes to international law, most states are selective. They like to pick and choose, invoking it on some occasions while ignoring it on others. Accepting international law means sacrificing some degree of national sovereignty – an area where Syria and the other Arab countries have particularly anachronistic views. They still claim that whatever they do within their own borders is entirely their own business. Often it is not, and that is especially true when it comes to human rights and the protection of civilians.
In comparison with national law, though, international law is weak and relatively undeveloped with regard to enforcement mechanisms. As globalisation proceeds this problem will only get worse unless effective mechanisms are found.
Syria is an extreme case but there are plenty of other, more everyday, examples. There's not much point in spending years negotiating international conventions and treaties if countries can sign them and then ignore them without any penalty.
Saudi Arabia, unbelievably, is a party to CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Everybody knows that Saudi Arabia flouts the convention daily and on a massive institutionalised scale but with the present system there's little anyone can do about it beyond cajoling and diplomacy. In terms of law enforcement that's the equivalent of having the police knock on someone's door to ask them if they would please not do any more robberies.
One enforcement mechanism that does exist – though often it's an ineffective one – is the UN Security Council. But the Security Council is a political body, not a court, and the veto system allows some members to prevent it taking action for reasons based on politics rather than law.
There is no quick or simple way to solve the enforcement problem. The best we can hope for is that mechanisms will evolve over time but that will only happen if we make the effort to develop them.
Every violation that occurs without a penalty tends to undermine the force of international law in general. There are certainly limits to what can be done about that at present. At a practical level it's impossible to address every infringement, even if the political will is there, because there are so many. But if we want to make any progress at all we cannot ignore the most horrific and blatant examples – and the Syrian chemical weapons attacks are one of those.
There are also good reasons for taking a particularly strong stand on chemical weapons, as Scott Gartner, a professor of international affairs, points out in an article for Huffington Post.
So far, in contrast to the growing nuclear club, the world has been remarkably successful in moving towards the complete elimination of chemical weapons. Worldwide, only five states have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention – Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Angola and South Sudan, plus Israel and Myanmar which have signed but have not ratified. In addition to that, Gartner says, 80% of the world's known stockpiles of chemical weapons have been destroyed, and there are programmes established to destroy most of the rest.
Having got so close to eliminating them entirely, we can't afford to let Syria start normalising their use. Gartner writes:
"Chemical weapons prohibition works; this is not idealism run amok, the results are real ... If we can eradicate chemical weapons, we can save lives and avoid future military reactions and chemical-weapon-based red line-diplomacy."
Blog post, 1 September 2013: Immediately after the chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21, the first reaction of many people – apart from horror at the mass slaughter – was to ask what the Assad regime could have hoped to gain from it.
Some asked the question out of sheer puzzlement, others because they doubted the regime could have been responsible. Surely it would be madness to do such a thing while UN weapons inspectors were in their hotel just a few miles from the scene. How on earth could the regime expect to get away with it?
It's worth revisiting this question because we know somewhat more now than we did then, and trying to find an answer may give some pointers to the regime's future behaviour.
The chemical attacks on August 21 were by no means the first of the Syrian conflict. According to last week's US intelligence report, for example, the regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs. The British government's intelligence report, also published last week, said the regime had used chemical weapons on at least 14 occasions in the past.
A recent article in Le Monde provided details about how such weapons were allegedly used in earlier attacks – basically to crack resistance in the areas of toughest fighting.
Up to a point, the August 21 attacks fit this established pattern – except that none had previously caused casualties on such an enormous scale. What we don't yet know is whether the huge number of deaths was unintentional – the result of careless use of chemical weapons – or deliberate.
Even though the UN inspectors were in Damascus at the time, the regime had little reason to fear them. They had arrived three days earlier with a very restricted mandate that had taken months for the UN to negotiate.
During a two-week stay they were due to visit Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, where rebels said the regime had used chemical weapons last March, plus two other sites which had not been publicly named. Khan al-Assal had since fallen into rebel hands and there were doubts as to whether they would actually get there.
In addition to that, under the UN's agreement with the regime they were allowed to investigate whether chemical weapons had been used, but not who used them.
With the inspectors thus confined in their straitjackets, the regime may have felt confident enough to carry on using chemical weapons regardless. If so, it was wrong. Once the scale of the Damascus attacks became clear, it had little choice but to let the inspectors visit – since refusal would amount almost to an admission of guilt. It delayed them for a while, though, possibly in the hope that evidence would be lost.
As with the attacks themselves, the question this raises is whether it was a cock-up or deliberate. Did the regime expect that the inspectors' presence would not be a problem, or was it trying to make a mockery of them?
Since the Syrian conflict began, Assad has escalated the violence ruthlessly but skilfully, stepping it up a notch at a time and each time getting away with it. In this way the world has become inured to it and reacts less strongly to further increases.
Even so, mass killing with chemical weapons is a big step, especially after Obama's "red line" warning a year ago. But here's a chilling hypothesis.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the regime is looking for a way to break the deadlock between its own forces and the rebels, that it has decided the only way to do this is with chemical weapons, and has calculated that other countries will not intervene to stop it.
I know many readers will think this is far too fanciful, even where the Assad regime is concerned. But there is a precedent. It happened once before, in Iraq during the 1980s. Take a look at
this article by Steve Coll in the New Yorker which begins:
Early in 1987, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi President, decided to clear out scores of Kurdish villages, in order to undermine separatist rebels. He asked Ali Hassan al-Majid, a general and a first cousin, to lead the project.
In tape recordings later produced by Iraqi prosecutors, Majid told Baath Party colleagues that the novelty and the terror of chemical weapons would “threaten” the Kurds and “motivate them to surrender.”
On April 16th of that year, Iraq became the first nation ever to drop gas bombs on its own citizens; the gassing campaign lasted two years and killed thousands of people.
“I will kill them all with chemical weapons!” Majid told his colleagues. “Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them!”
The article goes on to say:
Saddam saw great value in chemical arms during the nineteen-eighties, and his twisted logic bears examination in the light of Syria's deteriorating conflict. Saddam first used gas bombs to thwart Iran’s zealous swarms of "human wave" infantry. Chemical terror broke the will of young Iranian volunteers, a lesson that informed Majid’s subsequent Kurdish campaign.
The Reagan Administration's decision to tolerate Saddam’s depravities proved to be a colossal moral failure and strategic mistake; it encouraged Saddam's aggression and internal repression, and it allowed Iraq to demonstrate to future dictators the tactical value of chemical warfare.
Following the parliamentary vote in Britain last week which left him without a key ally, and in the face of a discordant clamour from critics who said his plan for limited airstrikes was either a step too far or a step not far enough, Obama was beginning to look isolated. So he has done what any clever politician would do, and shifted the onus elsewhere. Congress will now carry the can for whatever decision is made.
There's a detailed analysis by Amy Davidson for the New Yorker who says:
"This may be the first sensible step that Obama has taken in the Syrian crisis, and may prove to be one of the better ones of his presidency – even if he loses the vote, as could happen. Politically, he may have just saved his second term from being consumed by Benghazi-like recriminations and spared himself Congressional mendacity about what they all might have done. It will likely divide the GOP [the Republican Party]."
In addition to that, by referring it to Congress (while claiming that he is not obliged to do so), Obama has further undermined the notion that we're seeing a re-run of Bush's Iraq war conspiracy. No one can still seriously claim that the president is clutching at chemical weapons as a pretext for invading Syria.
But let's look at the wider implications. What does it mean for Syria, for Russia and the United Nations?
First, it means a delay but Obama says that doesn't really matter: "The Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."
Meanwhile, the Assad regime has gone into lock-down mode to await the missiles. Reuters reported last week that military command centres were being evacuated from their normal buildings and, according to the opposition, being transferred to underground bunkers of civilian buildings such as schools.
That could make targeting of any airstrikes more difficult but it was already happening when the British parliament met on Thursday, so a further delay may not make much difference on that count.
The US Congress will not return from its summer break until September 9, so there will definitely be no bombing before then. Hopefully, this period of uncertainty and waiting will have some impact on the regime, distracting it from its battle with the rebels as it focuses on its strategy for surviving airstrikes. It might even decide that any more chemical attacks in the meantime would not be a brilliant idea.
On the propaganda front, the regime hasn't made much effort to catch up with the latest developments. This morning, the main story from SANA, the government news agency, is an attack on
Kerry's statement last Friday which it says "brings to mind the lies promoted by Colin Powell before the invasion of Iraq" and is "a desperate attempt to talk the world into accepting the upcoming US aggression". This, it adds, "only serves the political interests of the United States, not the interests of its people."
So far, Russia seems as intransigent as ever. On Friday, President Putin said he was "convinced" that the chemical attacks near Damascus were "nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States."
If the Americans had evidence that Assad's forces were responsible they should present it to the UN weapons inspectors and the Security Council, Putin said.
The question this raises is what evidence – if any – would persuade Putin to change his mind. He has already said that intercepts of regime communications cannot be used to take "fundamental decisions", but what if the inspectors find that the chemical used was indeed sarin and that it came from weapons that only the regime possesses?
Putin's insistence on irrefutable proof is not reflected in his own government's evidence-free claims about who was responsible or in various "news" websites like Russia Today and The Voice of Russia which constantly regurgitate the Assad regime's propaganda and highlight the flimsiest of stories from the internet (so long as they cast doubt on Assad's culpability).
The latest of these is that rebels have suposdely "admitted" causing the deaths on August 21 by their own mishandling of chemical weapons supplied by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia.
In theory, the delay waiting for Congress to make up its mind could also provide time to explore alternative solutions to the chemical weapons crisis, but that doesn't look very promising at the moment.
Up to now, Russia has blocked moves in the Security Council to get tough with Syria on the grounds that it wants to prevent military intervention. This is partly because it says it was misled over the earlier intervention in Libya but mainly it is aimed at shielding Assad – probably not for Assad's own sake but to maintain some influence in the region.
That stance now, though, is having the opposite effect and is pushing the US in a military direction. Yesterday, Obama justified his call for Congress to back military action by saying he was "comfortable going forward" without UN approval because the Security Council "so far, has been completely paralysed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable".
Blog post, 4 September 2013: One consequence of President Obama's decision to refer the Syrian chemical weapons issue to Congress is that any action the US eventually decides upon risks being shaped more by the need for congressional votes than an objective assessment of what would be most effective.
As Wells Bennett points out on the Lawfare blog, any statute authorising force "must be broad enough to win support from intervention-ish Senators like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, but also narrow enough to command votes from congressional democrats".
This could result in a jumbled compromise that satisfies nobody. Not that it necessarily will, but there's a possibility. Let's see how it's going so far.
A few days ago, Obama set out his own position: no open-ended commitment, no boots on the ground, and consideration of options "that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons".
That's how it should be. Regardless of everything else that is happening in Syria, use of chemical weapons – anywhere – ought to be a red line, but not an excuse to join in the broader conflict. It should not become a backdoor way, as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently advocated, of achieving other goals such as "limiting the growth of Iranian and Hezbollah influence".
The latest draft of the senate resolution (full text here) does appear to follow Obama's preferred line quite closely, though it also opens up the possibility of broadening the goals. The current text, of course, may well be amended again in the days to come. Section 2(a) currently states:
The President is authorised ... to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria, only to:
(1) respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government in the conflict in Syria;
(2) deter Syria's use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect our allies and partners against the use of such weapons; and
(3) degrade Syria's capacity to use such weapons in the future.
The draft sets a time limit of 60 days for this authorisation, with one possible extension of a further 30 days.
The draft specifically limits military action to Syrian territory (a previous draft did not do so – opening up the possibility of strikes elsewere, such as Lebanon or Iran).
It has also been widely reported that the draft rules out "boots on the ground". That is not quite accurate. The document actually says it "does not authorise the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations". In other words, troops could be sent to Syria in a non-combat role, such as "advising" and training rebel fighters.
While insisting that the issue is chemical weapons, the draft does allow scope for blurring of goals. It notes, for example, that the use of military force is "consistent with and furthers" the goals of the US strategy towards Syria, including achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict. Thus, degrading Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons, while not intended to overthrow him, is seen as assisting more general American objectives.
This is spelled out in more detail in Section 5 of the draft, which says:
Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this resolution, the President shall consult with Congress and submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives an integrated United States Government strategy for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria, including a comprehensive review of current and planned US diplomatic, political, economic, and military policy towards Syria, including:
(1) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States;
(2) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian political opposition, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition;
(3) efforts to isolate extremist and terrorist groups in Syria to prevent their influence on the future transitional and permanent Syrian governments;
(4) coordination with allies and partners; and
(5) efforts to limit support from the Government of Iran and others for the Syrian regime.
This is where it all gets rather tricky. The plan, while tackling chemical weapons, is also to pursue a "negotiated political settlement" by means that are at least partly military.
Referring to the chemical weapons issue yesterday, Obama said: "What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad's capabilities," but then added: "At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition."
So the US is pursuing two Syria strategies at the same time – one related to chemical weapons, the other to the wider conflict. Obviously it would be madness to have these two strategies working at cross-purposes, and if the response to chemical weapons helps to bring the general conflict to a swifter conclusion no one can complain.
Equally, though, trying to maintain the worldwide ban on chemical weapons is a matter of principle and other policy considerations regarding Syria should not be allowed to get in the way of that.
Pursuing these two strategies in parallel may just be possible but the more they become merged the more what was originally a principled stand on chemical weapons will be seen as an excuse for something else.
It's an extremely fine line. Will Obama be able to stick to it?
Blog post, 5 September 2013: In an interview on Tuesday night, President Putin said he did not rule out supporting a UN Security Council resolution backing military action in Syria it it were proved that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. This has led to speculation about a softening of Russia's position.
Putin was interviewed by the Associated Press and the Russian Channel 1. It was a wide-ranging interview – not just about Syria – and was presumably intended to set the scene for the coming G20 summit.
AP’s report of the interview is basically a summary with quotes from Putin but ITAR-TASS has what appears to be a full transcript in Russian. The only transcript that I can find in English is one published by Russia Today*.
Putin began by expressing his customary scepticism about the chemical attacks:
“We can’t say for sure what happened. We think we should at least wait for the UN inspectors to give their report. We don’t have any evidence showing that it was the regular army of the Syrian government that used those chemicals. We don’t even know at this point if those were chemical weapons or just some hazardous chemicals).”
While claiming that “it would be totally absurd” for government forces to have used chemical weapons, given the military situation around Damascus on August 21, he stopped short of directly accusing rebel fighters of using them (though that does appear to be the implication).
This might, however, be viewed as a small backtrack from Putin’s statement last Friday that the chemical attacks near Damascus were "nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States."
In the interview, AP's reporter asked Putin:
“What would Russia’s position be if you became convinced that the chemical attack was launched by the Syrian government? Would you agree to military action?”
“I won’t rule this out. But let me draw your attention to one absolutely essential thing (principle circumstance). Under international law the only body that can authorise using weapons against a sovereign state is the UN Security Council. Any other reasons and methods to justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state are unacceptable and they can be seen as nothing but aggression.”
He went on to say “We firmly believe that the use of weapons of mass destruction is a crime” – and he could scarcely say otherwise since Russia is a party to the Convention on Chemical Weapons.
So, to summarise Putin’s position, it appears that he is willing to contemplate action on chemical weapons in Syria, but only through the Security Council but only if satisfied by evidence of their use, and by whom.
This might seem like a small shift, aimed at tempting the US back to the Security Council, but it all hinges on what evidence would be needed to satisfy Putin. While calling on people not to jump to conclusions, he has already said it’s absurd to suppose the Syrian regime did it; in his interview he casts doubt on video evidence about casualties and dismisses intelligence intercepts of conversations as hearsay. That really leaves only the UN inspectors whose brief, as we know, does not include determining who was responsible.
Since the Syrian conflict began, Putin has been Assad’s most important international supporter (in the interview he claims otherwise: “We are not defending the current Syrian government …We are defending the principles and norms of international law.”) and his latest remarks should probably be judged in that context: he doesn’t want the US to go ahead with airstrikes.
Until now, Russia has successfully used its veto, or the threat of it, to block any serious action over Syria in the Security Council. Following the chemical attacks in August, though, that has pushed the US in the opposite direction. Obama’s frustrations with the Security Council have led him to propose independent action.
So it’s likely that Putin’s more conciliatory tone, if not the substance, is intended to revive hopes of some UN-based solution. That probably won’t persuade Obama but it will encourage his critics – those like the International Crisis Group who favour “reaching out” to Russia and Iran over Syria.
Apart from doing that, and challenging every piece of evidence, Russia has very little leverage at the moment, though there is still the Russian threat to supply Syria with fighter jets and S-300 missile defence systems. The contract, originally agreed in 2007, is once again on hold but Putin suggested in his interview that deliveries might be completed if “steps are taken that violate the existing international norms” (i.e US intervention in Syria without UN approval) and Russia would also reconsider “supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain [other] regions of the world". AP’s report interprets this as “a veiled threat to revive a contract for the delivery of the S-300s to Iran, which Russia cancelled a few years ago under strong U.S. and Israeli pressure”.
Looking a bit further ahead, though, the Security Council – and hence Putin – could return to centre stage when the inspectors report back. A lot depends on the timing. According to today’s Guardian, the inspectors may not be ready for another two to three weeks – which raises the prospect that US airstrikes could have gone ahead by then.
On the other hand, if the decision from the US Congress is delayed, or or if Obama loses the vote (or prematurely withdraws his request to Congress for lack of support), the Security Council will be back in the spotlight, but on Russia's terms.
* Cautionary note: Russia Today is a propaganda outfit but I have compared its transcript with the Russian version from ITAR-TASS and, allowing for the quirks of Google Translate, they seem identical. I can also see no political reason for Russia Today to misrepresent what Putin said. On this occasion, therefore, I think it can be relied upon as a source.
Hollande seems to be backtracking on his earlier support for US military action and his statement has far-reaching implications:
1. With the inspectors not expected to report for another two to three weeks, it means President Obama will probably have to postpone any airstrikes too; if he goes ahead before then he will do so without any significant international allies – making him look even more isolated than he does now.
2. If this makes any military action unlikely for several weeks, there’s no real need for the US Congress to make a decision next week. The vote could be postponed, thus saving Obama from what at present looks like inevitable defeat.
That, in turn, would create a window to explore some diplomatic possibilities.
I have argued many times before that diplomacy is not going to achieve a political solution to the Syrian conflict as a whole until the situation changes on the ground and Assad agrees to go. But I have also argued that use of chemical weapons – wherever it happens – is a different issue that should be dealt with separately from the general conflict in Syria.
As the statement issued by a group of G20 countries put it earlier today:
“The international norm against the use of chemical weapons is longstanding and universal. The use of chemical weapons anywhere diminishes the security of people everywhere. Left unchallenged, it increases the risk of further use and proliferation of these weapons.”
The use of chemical weapons in Syria requires an effective international response. Russia’s support for Assad has so far prevented any serious action by the Security Council with regard to the Syrian conflict more generally but that doesn’t necessarily mean Russian would be quite so intransigent over the issue of chemical weapons. Russian is a party to the Convention on Chemical Weapons and President Putin, in his TV interview on Tuesday, said "We firmly believe that the use of weapons of mass destruction is a crime."
This ought to provide something to work with on the diplomatic front, or at least to explore. The key would be persuading Putin that chemical weapons in Syria can be addressed without making it a pretext for something else.
The world has made considerable progress towards eliminating chemical weapons and the aim should be not to let that slip by allowing their use to become normalised now. There are two steps towards achieving that in Syria:
1. Preventing any further use.
2. Holding accountable whoever was responsible.
Of the two, preventing further attacks is plainly the most urgent. Accountability is important too, but if a way can be found to prevent further use, accountability could be set aside for a later date.
If the immediate issue can be narrowed down to one of prevention, and the UN inspectors produce irrefutable evidence that banned weapons have been used, Putin might – just might – be open to persuasion.
So, what might be done? One idea, from US Senator Joe Manchin, is to give Assad 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin securing and ridding the country of its weapons stockpiles.
Couched in those terms – basically as an ultimatum – it’s unlikely to work. Russian wouldn’t support it and Assad would probably respond by calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a quid pro quo. – which isn’t going to happen, desirable though it might be.
Nevertheless, there’s the germ of an idea here. Another option would be for the UN to call on Assad to hand over his chemical weapons for safe-keeping outside Syria, with inspections to ensure there was no further production.
It’s certainly worth testing whether Russia would agree to that. Assad would still be reluctant, since he maintains that his chemical weapons are a national defence against Israel’s nuclear weapons. But with Russia's cooperation he might just be persuadable that clinging on to his stockpile is more trouble than it's worth.