War in Syria: Crime without punishment?

23 August 2013 – The Guardian (London)

With the apparent chemical weapons attack of August 21, the Syrian conflict has reached a new low. European voices are now leading calls for military intervention. But none of the options looks likely to prevent a "regional war in freefall," writes The Guardian.

There is next to no doubt that chemical weapons were used in Ghouta in eastern Damascus, and that, unlike previous alleged attacks, they produced mass casualties. Whether the death toll is in the hundreds or over a thousand, as the rebels claim, this is one of the most significant chemical weapons attacks since Saddam Hussein's on the Kurds in Halabja 25 years ago, and an unmistakable challenge to the vow [US President] Barack Obama made a year ago that, if proved, the use of chemical or biological weapons would "change my calculus".

Nor is there much doubt about who committed the atrocity. The Syrian government acknowledged it had launched a major offensive in the area and they are the only combatant with the capability to use chemical weapons on this scale. Western intelligence officials have calculated it would need an invasion force of 60,000 troops to secure the 12 chemical weapons depots at Bashar al-Assad's disposal. A lot of sarin, if indeed that was the agent used, is needed to kill that number of people. The sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway killed 13 people.

That leaves the question why. In defending their client state from the accusation, Russia called the attack a pre-planned provocation, occurring as it did within only five miles of the hotel where UN inspectors had arrived to investigate previous alleged incidents. There are four possible causes: a Syrian commander acting on his own, which is unlikely; an order from Mr Assad in the knowledge that Mr Obama would not respond; or a decision to up the firepower against the rebels who, despite losses in Qusair or Homs, still control about half of the country. The fourth possible cause is that this was an attack which went wrong, killing many more than intended.

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