Possible Syria chemical arms 'embarrassing' for US

Text by: Sam DAVIES | Sam DAVIES | Anne-Diandra LOUARN
5 min

Reports by Washington that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons have raised questions whether the US will follow through on its threat to intervene on the ground.


It seems Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime might at last have crossed the US’ famous "red line" for military intervention.

In a letter to several members of Congress on Thursday, April 25, the White House stated: "Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin."

If so, Syria would have overstepped the mark US President Barack Obama set in August last year, when he described the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" that would bear "enormous consequences". "If we begin to see the quantities of chemical weapons used or moved, it would change my equation," Obama said at the time, reissuing the threat during his visit to Israel in March.

So is the United States paving the way for an international military intervention?

Based on the evidence at hand -- or lack thereof, as the case may be -- the general consensus is ‘probably not’.

On Friday 26 April, a day after the letter was sent to Congress, the president declared he was awaiting a "definitive judgment" on whether the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against rebel fighters before he took action, vowing "a vigorous investigation."

White House spokesman Jay Carney also sought to play down the letter’s contents, saying that no timeline had been set to corroborate the evidence and describing the case as “not airtight”.

Crossing the red line causes trouble for the West

Indeed, the United States and its allies seem neither motivated nor determined to intervene on the ground.

Crossing the red line was "very embarrassing" for the West, Mohamed Ajlani, the professor of political science and international relations at the Diplomatic and Strategic Studies (CEDS), told FRANCE 24.

"Americans are embarrassed because they have to act, but also bitter about it. One of the main reasons is that American policymakers are still in shock at the failures of their last two interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan," Ajlani said.

According to Ajlani, the threat of US sanctions is only slight. "In my opinion, the red line is a smoke screen that was used to hide America’s paralysis since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Due to not wanting to offend the Russians, the Chinese or the Iranians, America has become immobilised in a way that has benefited the Assad regime," he said.

According to David Reeths, director of IHS Jane's Consulting, a US firm specialising in defence issues, this new situation should not lead to an impulsive military intervention.

"Weapons of mass destruction elimination operations, as these efforts are termed, are extremely complex and would almost certainly require a significant in-country presence for an extended period of time," he warned.

David Cameron does not believe in a military intervention

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed scepticism about sending troops to Syria, even though he believes the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is "extremely serious" and "a war crime".

"I don't want to see that and I don't think that [military intervention on the ground] is likely to happen, but I think we can step up the pressure on the regime, work with our partners, work with the opposition in order to bring about the right outcome," he said.

"I have always been keen for us to do more. We are working with the opposition, we want our allies and partners to do more with us to shape that opposition, to make sure we are supporting people with good motives who want a good outcome, to put pressure on that regime so we can bring it to an end."

The opposition, the UN and Europe demand a field survey

The West’s rhetoric has been taken with a grain of salt by the Syrian opposition, which on Friday called for the UN to send staff to Syria to recover irrefutable evidence of the use of chemical weapons.

The European Union echoed the call. Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said: "We hope that a UN delegation would travel to Syria to study the allegations on chemical weapons.”

“We cannot make judgments unless we have definite information,” he added.

The UN for its part remains hamstrung. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon continues to ask for permission to send a delegation on the ground in Damascus. A fact-finding mission would be "ready to deploy within 24 to 48 hours," should President Bashar al-Assad give his approval.

Yet the Syrian regime has so far resisted the demand, not least because it has itself accused the armed opposition for weeks of using the same type of chemical weapon.

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