Chemical weapons in Syria unmask the West’s impotence

Michael Stephens
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SYRIA’s endlessly worsening conflict seems to have stepped into a new phase over the past two weeks. With over 70,000 already dead and no end in sight to a bitterly divisive civil war, it is hardly surprising that new atrocities are now appearing as the conflict becomes more deeply entrenched.

A growing body of evidence suggests that chemical weapons have now been used in Syria. Videos showing victims foaming at the mouth, with open shell casings nearby, stand alongside soil and human samples from Aleppo and Homs. Analysed by the UK, France and the US, these have tested positive for the presence of chemical substances.

The problem is, however, that no one seems to know who exactly authorised the use of these weapons – or even what they precisely contained. Some sources confirm the presence of traces of the lethal nerve agent Sarin, others have referred to the use of hydrochloric acid.

We can say for certain that there was no wide-scale use of chemical agents, as seen in the infamous gassing of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein in Halabja in 1988. The evidence points to a more limited and highly-localised deployment, leading to a small number of deaths.

But Western governments are now stuck in a terrible fix. Stating repeatedly that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “game changer”, a “red line”, and totally unacceptable, these nations have all but acknowledged that some evidence of chemical weapons usage exists. Bringing in further experts for evaluation buys them some time. But not a lot. Sooner rather than later, the US, UK and France are going to have to make up their minds about whether a military intervention is needed.

Unfortunately, all their cautious and uncertain rhetoric makes the repeated promises of enforcement of redlines increasingly worthless. The more time passes, the more the West looks weak and indecisive, thereby permanently damaging its effectiveness in a conflict in which external actors – including Iran and Qatar – have held no such reservations about funnelling in financial and military support.

The case for intervention in Syria via a coalition of the willing could be made on the available evidence, should Western governments so wish (Iraq’s case was made on far less). The humanitarian situation is so dire that a suitable pretext may well exist, and would not prove highly controversial.

But an intervention will not constitute boots on the ground. I know of very few Syrians who desire such an outcome, nor is there political will in the US, UK, or France to see “our boys” coming back in body bags for a fight which was not of their making.

Time will tell if the West really means what it says about enforcing redlines in Syria. Otherwise, the use of chemical weapons may merely have unmasked a Western policy, based on empty threats and filibustering, from a group of countries that has no answer to an increasingly unsolvable conflict.

Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institution in Qatar.

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