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Middle east

West 'reluctant' to confirm chemical weapons in Syria

Text by Anne-Diandra LOUARN

Latest update : 2013-08-22

France has called for the international community to use force if it is confirmed that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus. But any coordinated international intervention seems unlikely for the moment.

It may have been the most deadly chemical strike since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011: early on August 21, roughly 1,300 civilians – including many children – were killed by President Bashar al-Assad’s army near Damascus, according to the Syrian opposition, which claims that chemical weapons were used.

The regime, on the other hand, says that the rebels have fabricated the accusation to attract the attention of the UN delegation, which has been on the ground for the past two days investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in the country.

FRANCE 24 interviewed Frédéric Pichon, a researcher and Syria specialist at François Rabelais University in Tours (central France), for further insight into the possible impact of the latest attack.

FRANCE 24: If this attack indeed turns out to have been a chemical strike, will the international community get more involved in helping resolve the Syrian crisis?

Frédéric Pichon: I don’t think so. If the numbers the opposition have cited turn out to be accurate, this is a chemical strike of unprecedented magnitude. That said, the diplomatic equation is unchanged: the US is totally uninvolved, there is no European consensus aside from France and the UK, and Russia is unconditionally supportive of Assad’s regime.

‘There must be a reaction,’ Fabius says

It’s similar to what happened with the [1990s] war in Rwanda: the situation was untenable, but the international community nevertheless proved unable to change things, and showed no desire to intervene on the ground.

FRANCE 24: According to the Syrian regime and its ally Russia, the chemical strike was fabricated by rebels in order to make Assad look bad. What do you think of that version?

FP: That is indeed a hypothesis we’re considering, as it’s not totally impossible. Without underestimating the violence of the regime, why would it want to carry out a chemical weapons attack of that amplitude when a UN delegation has just arrived in Syria? That would be shooting themselves in the foot, and it’s not the image Assad wants to project.

I’m not saying that the rebels are behind it, but many rogue groups are acting in the name of the Free Syrian Army. Certain radicals from the Al-Nusra Front [a Syria-based rebel group associated with al Qaeda], for example, would be fully capable of staging such an elaborate attack. Especially since a dozen of their members were recently arrested in Turkey and found to be carrying chemicals, which could have been sarin gas.

F24: If two years of civil war have still not been enough to motivate Western countries to get involved militarily, what could change things?

FP: For the moment, nothing. I think that, despite all the deadly bombings and chemical strikes that may have occurred, the next step toward an evolution of the international community’s position is a new international summit, a follow-up to Geneva.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with an officer from the French army who told me there had been interest in military intervention last spring, but that an internationally coordinated operation in Syria was judged too technically complicated and expensive. Even more so because the regime’s air defence system is more substantial than [former Libyan strongman Muammar] Gaddafi’s was, for example.

F24: Why are chemical weapons considered such a game-changer, when more classic bombings and attacks have already killed 100,000 people since the beginning of the conflict?

FP: Chemical weapons have a particularly serious connotation, because they are not commonly used. Images of people killed in chemical strikes are atrocious, and stir people’s emotions.

And from a diplomatic point of view, chemical weapons represent the threshold of what is intolerable. It’s the famous red line mentioned by Obama in the summer of 2012. As long as the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not recognised by all countries, there’s an obstacle to intervention. In other words, Western powers are reluctant, because if they all unanimously confirm that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, they have to intervene, and that’s not something they want to do.

Date created : 2013-08-22

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