Chemical reaction

FILE - Residents and Free Syrian Army fighters are seen near buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the Akraba suburb of Damascus December 1, 2012. (REUTERS/Thair Al-Damashqi/Shaam News Network/Handout)

As world powers continue to echo each other’s threats to the Syrian regime that any use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated, it is critical that their words be backed up with actions.

With reports that Damascus is preparing chemical weapons for use, international attention has again turned to the issue after President Bashar Assad’s regime first raised the option in July, threatening to use its deadly supplies should a foreign attack be launched against it. It then backtracked somewhat from this threat, saying that its stocks – produced at sites capable of creating sarin and mustard gas, Western intelligence experts say – would never be used against Syrians.

But as the regime has consistently been labeling the opposition a group of “foreign” terrorists, it appears its rather fluid view of semantics might allow it to continue to play with words in such a way.

Tragically spineless during the Iraqi gas attack on Kurds in Halabja in 1988, and still living in the shadow of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – the motive for which was far weaker than the Assad regime’s admission of ownership of chemical weapons – international observers are, rightly, expressing commitment to retaliating should Assad unleash his toxic supplies.

With grave reactions from NATO, the U.S. and European powers over the last couple of days, it seems clear that these reports are not based on mere speculation.

And it is not far-fetched to imagine that such weapons may well be used. To unleash chemical weapons, which cannot distinguish between a combatant and a civilian in their indiscriminate destruction, is a grotesque and desperate measure when carried out by any regime. But this regime has shown that is not concerned with the rules of war, and with 41,000 Syrians already dead, it doesn’t seem like it will put down its weapons soon.

Regime stalwarts continue to warn that without Assad there will be no recognizable Syria left. Why would they then stop at chemical weapons? Hopefully someone within the regime will recognize that for an international community depressingly quiet thus far in the face of crimes against humanity, this may be a red line too far.

It is now the responsibility of global powers not to stop at condemnations and warnings. The violence in Syria is continuing to reach new, unprecedented levels, with fighting intensifying in Damascus, and the overall destruction rendering the country’s recovery time, when the conflict ever ends, ever longer.

Those countries that claim to stand by the opposition must show that they mean it. Impressed as they claim to be with the newfound unity among previously disparate groups, it is imperative that foreign powers now show such cohesion in their support. They must recognize that to take at face value any regime promise not to use chemical weapons would be a dangerous move.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 05, 2012, on page 7.




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