Syria, which had just seemed to have a real chance at stabilization and the start of a political process, is once again on the brink of catastrophe. The chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, has sparked global uproar. About 80 people have been killed and more than 200 injured. Patients’ symptoms bare the hallmarks of the nerve agent sarin, banned by the chemical weapons convention.
The Syrian American Medical Society reports that the victims do not have any physical trauma injuries. Doctors surmise that it was not chlorine that was used, but sarin, which is much deadlier. The opposition first accused Russia of carrying out the attack, then Damascus. Such an attack cannot be justified and must not be left without a solid response. The perpetrators must not get away with it.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss a draft resolution prepared by the US, the UK and France. The resolution condemns Damascus for the supposed use of chemical weapons. The stumbling block is expectedly Russia’s position, which is hardly understandable to most of the international community given the death toll, and that even the UN’s Syria envoy has confirmed that the attack was perpetrated from the air.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova slammed the international community for jumping to conclusions without proper investigation. According to her, the text of the resolution anticipates the results of an investigation blaming Damascus, and was written with “extreme carelessness.” The Foreign Ministry considers the attack a provocation by destructive forces in Syria targeting the peace process and the talks in Geneva and Astana.
Zakharova lamented the position of international and regional counterparts, who she said are ready to use any terrorist act to harm the Syrian government. She thus blamed terrorist groups for the attack. Russia considers information coming from the White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as unreliable, as they have long been discredited.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had recorded the use of similar chemical shells in Aleppo before. It also pointed out that the Syrian air force on the same day struck a “terrorist” ammunition depot and military vehicles in the same area.
According to the ministry, a chemical weapons facility was situated in the depot. So it is possible that the “chemical attack” was collateral damage from the Syrian government fighting terrorists who were plotting to use weapons of mass destruction.
Russia has called for a full investigation by the international community and NGOs. Moscow has warned about the dangers of making hasty conclusions and making far-reaching decisions based on them. Its position is explained not only by attempts to save its ally in Damascus, considering that the latter is part of the solution in Syria.
The stumbling block is expectedly Russia’s position, which is hardly understandable to most of the international community given the death toll, and that even the UN’s Syria envoy has confirmed that the attack was perpetrated from the air.
The roots are in the Libyan crisis. Russia’s abstention of a UN resolution led to a bloody operation that has left the country severely unstable. Moscow considers the abstention a grave mistake, and has since been concerned that UN resolutions could be used as a pretext for international intervention and uncontrollable chaos in Syria, leading to a regional mess.
The US ambassador to the UN said if the Security Council does not come up with a concrete decision, America will act unilaterally. So a harsh response may be inevitable even with a Russian veto. The international community knows well what this means and what it can lead to. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has said the attack has seriously changed his views on Syria and its President Bashar Assad.
All the data at the international community’s disposal speaks against Assad, except for one thing that is beyond comprehension. The attack came shortly after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration does not consider Assad stepping down a priority. This was echoed by the US ambassador to the UN.
Everything was going so well for Assad, and his government was practically accepted as part of the solution. Such a savage attack would spark aggressive rhetoric that would put an end to all his aspirations of being part of the solution and staying in power for longer.
Chemical weapons have been used by both the government and the armed opposition. This has been proven by international organizations. The situation needs in-depth investigation and analysis. For example, the source of the chemicals could be the bombed area, not the bombs themselves. In the current situation, it is very dangerous to act on impulse, as a political solution and an end to bloodshed are at stake, as well as the whole future of Syria.
If the investigation shows that responsibility for the attack lays exclusively on the shoulders of the Assad government, the international community should respond to the atrocity and call it to account. And in that case, if Russia continues to side with the regime, it will completely lose its credibility on the world stage.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.