The visual evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical warfare on its citizens is too overwhelming to ignore. The international community should demand immediate access to the victims of the latest alleged attacks and to the area where they occurred. To not act now will only embolden all those who would use heinous weapons such as this on their own people.
The evidence is clear from the many videos and photographs showing rows of dead children and adults who were killed in their Damascus suburban neighbourhood on Wednesday. There is no sign of any trauma one would associate with a bombing or with gunfire. There are pictures of dead children with foam coming from their mouths, and videos of frightened, disoriented children and adults who are having difficulty breathing and are sometimes convulsing. Some experts in chemical warfare who have watched the videos say the people in them look like they are suffering from the effects of a nerve-gas attack.
There are UN inspectors already in Syria right now, sent there on Sunday to investigate the scene of alleged chemical warfare attacks by the Syrian government five months ago, but they have not been allowed access to the areas that were hit on Wednesday. The Syrian government has instead begun to bomb the neighbourhoods where at least 136 people died so mysteriously.
Russia, Syria’s obstinate ally, has said it believes opposition forces in Syria staged the attacks to make the government look bad and force international intervention. If the attacks were a ruse conveniently carried out while the UN inspectors are in Syria, this should be fairly easy to determine – if the UN inspectors are permitted to do their job. Russia, too, wants the investigation to go ahead.
The message needs to be made clear that the world does not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. While France and Britain are open to a military response, the United States is more cautious, in part because of a justifiable concern about Islamist opposition forces linked to al-Qaeda. The White House concluded that the Syrian government used chemical weapons last year, but failed to follow up on its vow that doing so would be a “red line” that, when crossed, would prompt intervention. The world can’t turn its eyes away because the Syrian government and its ally are sowing the seeds of doubt. The inspectors are there. They must be able to do their job, or Syria must pay a price.