Ignoble inaction

A demonstration against the alleged chemical weapons attack at the suburbs of Damascus, in Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

The news that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons on an attack in areas near the capital Damascus, leaving hundreds of people dead, is the latest horror story in a country that should have seen its national nightmare end a long time ago.

Almost one year ago to the day, U.S. President Barack Obama issued his now-infamous “red line” threat about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. In the months that followed, the line was eventually erased because it was crossed so many times.

This time around, the presence of chemical weapons inspectors from the United Nations in the Syrian capital renders Wednesday’s news even more horrific. Does the international community have an infinite capacity for issuing statements, and an infinite reserve of patience when it comes to the actions of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad? The sites of the attack are only a few kilometers away from where Syria’s guests are staying. Will they be able to arrive there in timely fashion? Or, will another set of meetings and negotiations begin, in order to define the parameters for seeing the inspectors actually do their job?

Many Syrians have long lost any hope that the U.N. and the international community are prepared to deal with their country the way they do with other blatant human rights offenders. When a “special envoy” on Syria is appointed by the U.N. and the Arab League, some activists spend their time counting the days, and the accompanying number of casualties, to let the world know how much time has been wasted by such empty gestures.

If politicians and officials in briefing rooms around the world are now busy demanding that inspectors have access to the attack sites, it means that the U.N.’s mission is already a failure. The arrangements should have been worked out prior to the inspectors’ trip to Syria, and not as an afterthought.

The spectacle of urgent U.N. meetings to discuss the incident while inspectors are already on the scene is simply deplorable. It will be worse if the inspection activities, and other investigation activities conducted by individual governments, lead nowhere. Already, Russia has begun to put its own spin on the attack. Not surprisingly, it is accusing the rebels of being responsible – one wonders why the rebels would select such a possible target, as opposed to a military base, but such intricate knowledge of rebel tactics and strategy is obviously only held by the Russians. This certainty is in contrast to the U.S., which a few months ago told the world that Damascus was likely using chemical weapons against rebels – but only on a small scale, meaning it really didn’t count.

The “deep concern” being expressed by world capitals is matched only by the deep hole that governments around the world – with no exceptions – are digging for themselves, should they ever want the respect of the Syrian people in the future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 22, 2013, on page 7.




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