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Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin speaks after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the media after briefing the Security Council on the U.N. chemical weapons report on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arabic Republic at the United Nations in New York September 16, 2013. U.N. chemical investigators on Monday confirmed the use of sarin nerve agent in an August 21 poison gas attack outside the Syrian capital in a long-awaited report that confirmed the West's suspicions but was not intended to assign blame. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) (SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters)
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin speaks after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the media after briefing the Security Council on the U.N. chemical weapons report on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arabic Republic at the United Nations in New York September 16, 2013. U.N. chemical investigators on Monday confirmed the use of sarin nerve agent in an August 21 poison gas attack outside the Syrian capital in a long-awaited report that confirmed the West's suspicions but was not intended to assign blame. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) (SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters)

Globe editorial

Chemical weapons and hard diplomacy Add to ...

United Nations chemical weapons inspectors are now absolutely certain that rockets armed with the banned chemical nerve agent sarin were used in an atrocious mass killing near Damascus last month.

For anyone who viewed the awful images of Syrian men, women and children writhing on the floor and frothing at the mouth, their findings are anti-climactic and patently obvious. In the time it took for the inspectors to conduct their investigation into the Aug. 21 massacre, the world has been brought to the brink of war and back.

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It’s less clear whether the diplomatic track, intended to prevent the Assad regime from committing more atrocious war crimes of this kind, will prove effective.

In the narrow window it has to work in, Western powers must remain tenacious in pressing Russia and the Syrian government to fulfill their end of the chemical-weapons bargain. They should keep the option of military strikes on military installations firmly on the table.

That is, after all, what ultimately induced an obstructionist Russia to negotiate and the world to focus on a crisis that has been treated as a peripheral one for far too long.

The diplomatic agreement itself has been touted as the most sensible way to rid Syria of chemical weapons. However, its shortcomings are stark.

Rebels worry its terms will only embolden the Assad regime to deploy conventional weapons with more ferocity and at a faster pace as it waits for diplomacy to play out.

Chemical weapons, while horrific, have killed only a fraction of the estimated 100,000 Syrians that have been killed so far in this conflict. Meanwhile, the death toll in Syria keeps rising, with killings committed by both sides.

On Monday, the UN issued another report, this one from its human-rights investigators, who warned that hardline Syrian rebels and foreign jihadists have stepped up executions and torture. Fighting brigades now made up entirely of foreign fighters are at play in Syria, amplifying sectarian tensions.

Wisely, President Barack Obama has ordered American destroyers stationed in the eastern Mediterranean to stay put. He says he reserves the option to take military action. Meanwhile, France, Britain and the U.S. will seek a “strong” UN resolution with “serious consequences” if Syria fails to hand over its chemical weapons.

If progress is so slow on the Syrian side as to indicate negotiation in bad faith, limited military strikes should be revisited.

For the West, the road to Damascus may run through Moscow. But there is a real possibility that this latest round of diplomacy will lead absolutely nowhere.

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