Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.
What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.
If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was very clear on the need for swift international action to resolve the crisis in Syria when he gave that headline quote. Although none of Saturday’s sessions at the Manama Dialogue were devoted to that country, its 21-month-old conflict loomed large over proceedings. Both speakers and delegates intervening from the floor returned to the subject repeatedly:
‘We …remain committed to a transition to a new leadership’.
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on US policy towards Syria
‘In Syria…everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened – growing radicalisation, sectarian conflict, the collapse of the state, and now the spectre of chemical or biological weapons being used.’
Senator John McCain takes a robust line
‘I do want to say one thing about Russia. I think Russia can play a pivotal role in working with Iran. They helped in Syria when it looked like Assad was going to use chemical weapons and I think it is important that dialogue continues. Sometimes negatives turn into positives and I think this relationship that we can work with Russia will help us with respect to Iran.’
Congressman Charles Ruppersberger is optimistic about Russia’s role in the region
‘At this stage, after 20 months, I think the people of Syria do not want us to provide them with a no‑fly zone. They want us to provide them with the means for them to impose their own no‑fly zone, I can assure you. They are now ready and prepared to impose their own no‑fly zone. The lack of means is what is holding them back.’
Dr Khalid Bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Qatar, on whether his government favours a no-fly zone over Syria
‘Everyone here has heard of the numerous deals that were offered to the Syrian regime to reform or leave; this was done not to set a precedent of protecting leaders who have so grossly crossed the line, but to stem the possibility of reaching the situation which we are in today…’
Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bahrain, on efforts to ensure a peaceful resolution
‘We keep hearing from Syrian opposition leaders that the regime is about to end. Farouk Tayfour, Deputy Head of the Syrian National Council, has been predicting it by the end of this year, which is 22 days away. Last night we heard from Mustafa Sabbagh that the end is imminent, from Representative Rogers that the regime is in its last days of desperation, and all this has been brought about by very disparate rebel groups, most of whom are local village militias, and relatively few of whom are actually taking the battle to the enemy. If all this is real, and the rebels control 70% of the territory, etc., etc., why does anyone still need to do anything from the outside? What are we missing?’
Dr Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is sceptical about calls for intervention
‘We have seen enough evidence to know they need a warning’.
William Hague, again, responding to a question from Frank Gardner of the BBC on US and UK intelligence about the potential use of chemical weapons
By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS–Middle East
International lethargy has allowed the once-upbeat Syrian uprising to morph in profoundly dangerous ways. The picture is grim. The humanitarian toll is increasing, with a monthly death count now on par with the worst months of the sectarian war in Iraq. Syria’s civil war has spilt across the region in ways that Iraq’s never did. The long-feared radicalisation of segments of the Syrian opposition is happening.
The debate over the merits and costs of direct intervention may gain new momentum after the US presidential election, but in truth there is little appetite for it. This is not for a lack of imagination: a proposal put forward by the French strategic expert François Heisbourg calls for a no fly-zone over an 80-kilometre area stretching from the Turkish border to Aleppo, enforced solely by air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and not necessitating deployment of air power over Syrian territory. But even such a limited intervention is proving too much for risk-averse western and Turkish policymakers.