Crossing the 'red line' in Syria?

May 31 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
Russell Moul, London
On 29 May it emerged that the British government has given the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, fresh allegations of three new incidents of chemical weapons use by Syrian government forces in March and April this year. This development once again raises the question: if proven accurate, will this trigger foreign intervention to end the civil conflict that has, over the last two years, consumed an estimated 80,000 lives?
To date, Britain and France have been the most active in pushing for intervention in Syria as a response to what they see as wide-scale human rights abuse by the Assad regime—which includes the use of chemical weapons. With reference to Britain’s latest letter, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the UN, said that: ‘We continue to inform the secretary-general and Mr Sellstrom [the Swedish head of the UN chemical weapons investigation team] of any information as, and when, we get it’. This allegation brings the number of reported cases of chemical attacks to at least six, and applies greater pressure to the international community to take action in response. 
Earlier this year, the Obama administration threatened President Bashar al-Assad’s government with ‘enormous consequences’ should chemical weapons be used against opposition forces. However, despite pressure from Britain and France, the US has backtracked until evidence of large scale use of chemical weapons can be confirmed. Furthermore, the US has not indicated how it will respond should verification prove positive, which raises concerns about the stability of the ‘red line’.
In a related development this week, Russia has delivered an S-300 air defence system to aid Assad’s government, despite objections from the US, France and Israel. The surface-to-air missile system is capable of detecting, tracking and destroying incoming cruise missiles and low-flying aircrafts and would represent a significant upgrade for Assad’s air defence systems. The S-300s are being deployed by Russia in an attempt to avoid a Western-imposed no-fly zone like the one put in place by NATO over Libya in 2011.
Where do we go from here?
Given the maelstrom of events and the inconclusive evidence of chemical weapons use, how can Western nations respond? One means would be to maintain pressure on Assad by closely monitoring any reported incidents of chemical weapons, even if they are anecdotal. Although this will not likely lead the UN investigations team to declare definitively that such weapons have been used, it would demonstrate to Syrian forces that the West is taking the threat seriously. Indeed, some western governments have voiced fears that Assad is testing international resolve and, should he feel it is lacking, he could be tempted to use the weapons on a larger scale.  
The new allegations released by Britain came 24 hours after fresh claims of chemical weapons use emerged from the Damascene suburb of Harasta. This area, which is largely under rebel control, was apparently hit by a chemical attack during the night, which left large numbers of people suffering from severe respiratory difficulties. Video footage showed multiple individuals lying on the floor with oxygen masks while another revealed two injured fighters being loaded into a van, each exhibiting watering eyes and laboured breathing as medics intubate their throats.
Although this footage could not be corroborated, it emerges alongside a publication on the website of the French newspaper Le Monde featuring personal accounts from journalists who had spent two months undercover with Syrian rebels in the capital. During this time, a photographer apparently experienced ‘blurred vision and respiratory difficulties for four days after an attack on April 13 on the Jabar front’. The journalists claim to have witnessed a number of alleged chemical attacks over several days within the district; in extreme cases, fighters would suffer severe coughing, vomiting or even loss of consciousness.
The reporters also smuggled samples of suspected chemical weapons elements out of Syria, which were given to the French Intelligence services for analysis. The spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, Philippe Lalliot, said that the results from these samples will take about three weeks to analyse. In the meantime, investigators are gathering evidence from doctors from within Syria and neighbouring countries, as well as refugees and others. Slowly but surely, this evidence will be drawn together and may well provide a more detailed image of what is taking place in Syria.

Last changed: May 31 2013 at 12:16 PM