UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the evidence “screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria.” Military strikes by the U.S., Britain and France on the Assad regime and its assets now appear all but certain. The X factor on timing at this point is that the Obama administration may seek U.N. authorization.
Excerpts from Kerry’s statement: “What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.
“The meaning of this attack goes beyond the conflict on Syria itself. And that conflict has already brought so much terrible suffering. This is about the large-scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all, a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else.
“There is a clear reason that the world has banned entirely the use of chemical weapons. There is a reason the international community has set a clear standard and why many countries have taken major steps to eradicate these weapons. There is a reason why President Obama has made it such a priority to stop the proliferation of these weapons, and lock them down where they do exist. There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences. And there is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.”
ORIGINAL POST: (Washington, D.C.) — U.S., British and French forces are preparing for military strikes in Syria amidst credible reports of a chemical weapons massacre. But Russia is warning the West not to intervene against its ally, especially with U.N. authorization, and especially because Moscow says their is “no proof” chemical weapons were really used. What’s more, Syria and Iran are directly threatening to retaliate against Israel with “strategic” weapons.
More on that in a moment.
First, let’s be clear about the sheer evil being perpetrated in Syria and consider its implications.
Rebel forces’ — including those who have received training and support from the West — are reportedly beginning to penetrate the outskirts of Damascus. The Assad regime is increasingly terrified of losing control of the capital. That is likely why it has turned to the use of chemical weapons. If Assad is allowed to murder with WMD with impunity, we can expect him to use WMD again, and potentially on a larger scale. This is what Saddam Hussein with the Kurds in the early 1990s. Saddam used poison gas against the Kurds. The world did nothing. Saddam used even more poison gas.
“Given the rebel forces’ gains and the ongoing attrition of the Syrian army, the Assad regime is experiencing a sense of existential threat and is no longer foregoing doomsday weapons in its effort to survive,” notes one Mideast analyst with an Israel think tank.
“War crimes and crimes against humanity — indeed, constituting a form of genocide — have been carried out in Syria on a large scale and before the eyes of the world,” the analyst adds. “The lessons of the Second World War have not been learned. Even in the era of modern communications, with daily documentation of the atrocities, genocide can occur under conditions where the international system is paralyzed by interests and rivalries between the powers. The international impotence in the face of these events weakens deterrence against the use of nonconventional weapons and has implications in the Iranian context as Tehran continues on its determined march toward nuclear weapons.”
Western military assets are rapidly being moved into place. Specific target maps are being refined. What appears to being contemplated by the Pentagon are limited airstrikes and cruise missile strikes against sites important to the Assad regime, not specifically to bring down the regime but to punish it for using weapons of mass destruction and to warn the Syrian government never to use WMD again.
“The Defense Department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options, whatever options the president might choose,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to AP and ABC News.
“The French foreign minister says there will be a ‘proportionate response’ to the alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that he blamed on Syria’s government,” reports the Associated Press. “‘It will be negotiated in coming days,’ Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday. Fabius acknowledged that the lack of a U.N. blessing was problematic. ‘All the options are open. The only option that I can’t imagine would be to do nothing.'”
Israel reportedly expects — and wants the U.S. — to use military force in Syria. Likely, this is for three reasons:
- To act on the principle that no nation should be able to use WMD against civilians and get away with it.
- To be assured that when the President of the United States draws a “red line” (as President Obama did in Syria on chemical weapons) that the President will keep his word.
- To establish an updated precedent of using military force in the Middle East to deal with WMD threats.
U.N. chemical weapons inspectors tried to gather further evidence in Damascus today but were shot at by snipers and had to retreat. Later, they reportedly were able to safely make it back to the site of the one of the alleged toxic gas attacks to do research.
“In France, Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with ‘neurotoxic symptoms’ over less than three hours on Wednesday morning, when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place,” reported a separate AP story. “Of those, 355 died, the Paris-based group said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that its estimated death toll from the alleged chemical attack had reached 322, including 54 children, 82 women and dozens of fighters. It said the dead included 16 people who have not been identified.”
“A senior Syrian official on Monday issued a first direct warning that if attacked, his country would retaliate against Israel,” reports the Times of Israel. “Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath Party official who used to serve as Syria’s assistant information minister, said in a radio interview that Damascus would consider Israel ‘behind the [Western] aggression and [it] will therefore come under fire.'”
“We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding,” he said. “Normally the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel.”
Muftah concluded with a warning that “If the US or Israel make the mistake of taking advantage of the chemical issue… the region will go up in flames… that will affect security not only in the region but across the world.”
His words were echoed by Iranian officials, who on Monday shrugged off the threat of a US attack on its close ally Syria, but said that if such a strike were to take place, Israel would suffer.
“[The Americans] are incapable of starting a new war in the region, because of their lacking economic capabilities and their lack of morale,” said Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Republican Guards’ elite Basij force.
“No military attack will be waged against Syria,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly. “Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”
Israeli military officials have indicated they believe it unlikely that Syria would target Israel if the US or others intervened, but Israel has reportedly been taking security precautions just in case.
“Our hand is always on the pulse,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday. “Our finger is a responsible one and if needed, is on the trigger. We will always know how to protect our citizens and our country against those who come to injure us or try to attack us.”
“What happened in Syria is both a terrible tragedy and an awful crime. Our hearts go out to the women, children and babies, the civilians who were so brutally attacked by weapons of mass destruction. From this we draw three conclusions: One, this situation must not be allowed to continue. Two, the most dangerous regimes in the world must not be allowed to possess the most dangerous weapons in the world. And three, we expect that this will stop, of course, but we must always remember our sages’ ancient principle: ‘If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?’ That is to say, our finger must always be on the pulse. Ours is a responsible finger and if necessary, it will also be on the trigger. We will always know to defend our people and our state against whoever attacks us, tries to attack us or has attacked us. This is the principle that has consistently, constantly and responsibly guided this government, and thus it will continue.”
UPDATED HEADLINES TO TRACK:
- U.S. Talks Tough on Syria, Ramps Up Attack Planning (WSJ)
- The Chemical Attack in Syria: Implications (JCPA)
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