A chemical weapon strike was launched last Wednesday on the rebel-held suburb of Ghouta, in the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing over 1000 people. The Assad Government and rebel forces have both claimed they weren’t responsible for the use of a nerve agent missiles.
The United Nations (UN) Security Council immediately held an emergency meeting and called for ‘clarity’ on the attack. The Western powers demanded immediate on-site investigation, while the Russian representative was defensive of his Syrian ally and suggested the attack looked like a rebel “provocation” to discredit the Assad regime.
On Thursday of last week, the UN chief and Western powers urged the Syrian Government to give their UN experts immediate access to the suburb where the gas attack occurred, but this wasn’t granted until Sunday of this week.
Medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, reported on Saturday that three hospitals it supports near Damascus had treated 3600 people with nerve gas symptoms and that 355 deaths had occurred in the space of three hours.
On Friday, the United States started to reposition its naval forces from the Mediterranean to give President Obama the option of an armed strike of Syria.
The Assad Government agreed to let the UN inspect the site on Sunday and on the Monday, with a local ceasefire in place, the UN inspectors set off for the suburb of Ghouta. On crossing into rebel-held territory, the inspectors came under sniper fire and one of their vehicles was disabled. Undeterred, they replaced the vehicle and continued on to Ghouta, where they carried out the inspection.
It is being reported today that the United States intelligence services overheard a official from the Syrian Ministry of Defence on a phone call with the leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for the nerve agent attack.
Regardless of any UN findings, it appears the United States and Britain are determined to take action against the Assad regime and any attack could occur in a matter of days.
The timeline of events post-attack doesn’t bode well for the Assad Government. The United States is correct in suggesting that the concession to the UN to inspect the attack site, four days after the attack and three days after the initial request for access by the UN, was too late to be credible.
If the intelligence released by the US intelligence services regarding the phone call between Syrian Ministry of Defence officials and the leader of a chemical weapons unit are legitimate, it will be almost impossible to avoid a conflict. The United States and Britain are aware of the difficulties in forging any international agreement, as it is expected that China and Russia will again veto any UN Security Council resolution to strike the Assad Government. Nonetheless, the United States made it clear yesterday that they are willing to proceed with action in Syria without approval from the UN. Britain has been taking the same stance as the US on this matter, but David Cameron changed tack overnight saying Britain would await the completion of the UN investigation, before deciding on what action to take against the Assad Government.
One thing is clear, there has to be a response from the international community against those who used the chemical weapons and that there will be no winner to come out of all of this. If the Assad Government is removed and a more stable government is put in place, it is hard to see Syria avoiding a similar path to Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan who are all suffering internal struggles after having their former regimes dismantled.
Should the United States and Britain take immediate action? Or should cooler heads prevail and all parties wait for the UN Security Council findings before any action is taken?