Syrian rebel groups have claimed Assad forces launched a chemical attack on Wednesday 21st August in Eastern Ghouta resulting in more than 1,000 deaths.
Medecins Sans Frontieres says the victims are suffering from symptoms which indicate mass exposure to neurotoxic agent. Yet the Syrian authorities have shrugged off these allegations as ‘baseless.’ The attack comes almost exactly a year after US president Barack Obama first announced that the government’s use of chemical warfare against its citizens would constitute the crossing of a ‘red line.’
A number of concerning factors have emerged in the light of these attacks. First and foremost, it is problematic that in spite of the on-going reports of torture, massacres, deaths and brutal human rights violations in Syria since 2011, it has taken the use of chemical warfare to force the international community to take the situation seriously. That Assad has allegedly chosen to use chemical warfare highlights the level of contempt and disregard the Syrian government holds for not only their own people, but also international law and the organisations which enforce it. It is clear that the Syrian government is unfazed by any potential repercussions of this attack, and the disturbing truth is that this is probably well founded.
Middle Eastern conflicts have always solicited an inconsistent response from the international community owing to the complexity of their politics. The same holds true for Syria. One may argue this is due to post cold war politics and the fact US and Russia are genuinely adverse and fearful of a new regime in the country. The US fears a pro-Iranian government which would actively confront Israel whilst Russia (and Iran) would be completely isolated in the region in the event of a pro-American puppet government being established.
However, Assad has not recognised that while the international community has so far been content to occupy itself with hyperbole and elaborate speeches devout of meaningful action, the response to the threat of chemical warfare is likely to be different. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague says it ‘is an attack that is probably without precedent since what we saw with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.’
One of the major deterrents for the West’s intervention in Syria has been the hangover from the Iraq war and the question of legitimacy over their initial invasion. The more Assad morphs into Hussein the greater the appeal for intervention in the eyes of the Western leaders. It provides an important opportunity for the US to finally act in Syria and simultaneously reaffirm the legitimacy of the Iraq war. Israel has also weighed in as Netanyahu expects the US will strike Syria. Whilst world leaders seem to be increasingly keen on the idea of intervention, it is important to remember that just 9% of the American people back military action.
Is this too little too late?
If the allegations are proven true by UN inspectors that Assad has committed a chemical attack, what can be done to rescue the Syrian people from this sinister and evil regime? United Nations Human Rights Center revealed that the estimated death toll as of mid-February 2013 is 70,000, but following this attack if NATO or US troops invade surely this number will only multiply. Furthermore, the main Syrian opposition has warned of a strong retaliation to this attack. Even as I write, I am completely aware that is easy to criticise the lack of response over Syria but much more difficult to offer any constructive comment on what to do next. The situation has escalated to such a point that continuing to dwell on the past and criticise past action or inaction is futile.
We must engage constructively now to try and do whatever we can to facilitate the end of this dangerous conflict and minimise the damage to this beleaguered and beaten nation. In the event of these new developments, now more than ever one must ask ourselves, what would you do if you were a policy maker?