BEIRUT: Pressure is mounting on the United States and its allies to respond to an alleged chemical weapons attack outside the Syrian capital that officials say was probably perpetrated by the government, even if they cannot establish responsibility with certainty.
U.N. weapons inspectors were to begin moving in to the site of the attack that medical agencies say killed hundreds in the Eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus, after Syria Sunday bowed to pressure to grant them access.
But a U.S. official said the agreement to grant access had come too late to be credible, casting doubt over the team’s ability to establish culpability.
Syria confirmed it had agreed to allow the inspections, and the U.N. said Damascus had agreed to a cease-fire while a U.N. team are at the site.
Restricted access in the days following the attack and continued government bombardment of the affected areas have made detailing a clear picture of what exactly happened last Wednesday difficult. But medical samples, along with videos of the attack and witnesses’ testimonies, have been collected, and Western powers have made increasingly assertive claims that they believe President Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible.
France followed the United States and the United Kingdom Sunday in concluding the government was behind it.
French President Francois Hollande told his U.S counterpart Barack Obama Sunday that “everything was consistent” with the conclusion that Damascus was responsible.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official said there was very little doubt that the Syrian government had used a chemical weapon against civilians.
“Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident,” the U.S. official said.
“At this juncture, any belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team would be considered too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other international actions over the last five days,” the official said.
Britain also said that evidence of an attack could have already been destroyed ahead of a visit.
“We have to be realistic now about what the U.N. team can achieve,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
The U.S. last year said the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would prompt unspecified action if crossed.
There were increasing signs Saturday that the United States and its allies were considering taking action. Obama met his top military and national security advisers to debate options. U.S. naval forces have been repositioned in the Mediterranean to give Obama the option of an armed strike.
The U.S. is reluctant to become embroiled in the civil war in Syria. A full-scale intervention is unlikely and unpopular, while there are persistent concerns that arming opposition rebels fighting Assad could empower Al-Qaeda operatives in Syria working against U.S. interests. The Al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front leader, in an audio recording, pledged revenge attacks on members of Assad’s Alawite sect.
“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it – do we have the coalition to make it work?” Obama said in a television interview broadcast Friday. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”
The U.N. team, who entered Syria under an agreement to investigate three other sites where chemicals were alleged to have been used, have no mandate to investigate the party responsible for each attack, only to assess whether they have been used.And while the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting immediately after the attack, urging “clarity” on the incident, there are doubts any binding statement condemning the Syrian government and authorizing military action will emerge from the body. Syria’s staunch ally Russia, along with China, have already used veto powers to stop three previous statements condemning the regime.
Defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy Jeff White told The Daily Star the alleged chemical attack had forced the U.S. administration’s hand, but that intervention was likely to take the form of limited strikes on Assad’s military facilities. “Some sort of punitive strike is most likely ... aimed primarily at command and control targets,” White said.
The purpose of the attacks, he said, would be to “send a signal that we won’t tolerate this kind of attack and that there might be more strikes,” but added that there had to be “hard enough and strong enough to achieve significant political and military effects.”
“The White House is in a real pickle here. Even if the evidence is not 100 percent conclusive, if it can be reasonably concluded that the regime conducted what points toward a large scale chemical attack, they have to act.”
Omran al-Zoubi, Syria’s information minister, said any U.S. military action would “create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East.”
The U.S. threat also drew a warning from Syria’s closest ally Iran, which, repeating Obama’s own previous rhetoric, said the United States should not cross a “red line” by attacking Syria.
“America knows the limitation of the red line of the Syrian front and any crossing of Syria’s red line will have severe consequences for the White House,” said Massoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s military, according to Fars news agency.
The U.N.’s political affairs chief, Jeffrey Feltman, is due to arrive in Iran Monday to discuss the war in Syria, as well as developments in Lebanon and Egypt, the Mehr news agency reported.
With the war drums beating, some Western diplomats and analysts have suggested there was still a chance that diplomatic pressure could force Russia to soften its support for Assad at the U.N.
One Western diplomatic official told The Daily Star there were signs of a “changing dynamic” at the emergency Security Council meeting, with member states “increasingly concerned and impatient.”
Senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut Yezid Sayigh said the U.S. would “look at all other options before intervening.”
He said if the U.N inspectors could establish regime culpability for the attack, that could amount to leverage on Russia at the U.N.
“They could get a statement condemning the regime, or a statement saying no more chemical weapons,” he said.
“There is room for them to gain leverage on this, but it will require the Friends of Syria [a group of Western and Arab countries backing the opposition] to be very clear on what they expect from Russia.”
Russia welcomed Syria’s decision to allow the inspectors in to the site Sunday but said the U.S. should await the findings and realize that a unilateral use of force would be a mistake.
U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations Richard Gowen said while the presence of U.N. inspectors “puts the U.N. back at the center of the crisis ... it is not clear what they will be able to find and prove.”
“Still, the current sense of uncertainty over the possibility of a U.S. military strike does give [ U.N. chief] Ban Ki-moon and his envoy Lakhdar Brahimi a brief window of opportunity to push for new peace talks. But even if Assad is willing to negotiate to avoid U.S. strikes, it may only be a delaying tactic,” he said.
“If the U.S. does launch any sort of military strike on Syria, it will be even harder for Ban and Brahimi to carve out a peace deal. Neither Russia nor Iran will want to be accused of softening their support for Assad under U.S. pressure.”
Jeff White said a resolution was impossible. “We will never get a resolution out of the U.N. And if the U.S. does revert to the U.N. on this, that’s a sign they really aren’t willing to do anything.”