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.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 22 August 2013