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U.N. chemical weapons experts visit a hospital where wounded people affected by an apparent gas attack are being treated, in the southwestern Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, August 26, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria met and took samples from victims of an apparent poison gas attack in the rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Monday after the U.N. team themselves survived a sniper attack that hit a vehicle in their convoy. (Abo Alnour Alhaji/REUTERS)
U.N. chemical weapons experts visit a hospital where wounded people affected by an apparent gas attack are being treated, in the southwestern Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, August 26, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria met and took samples from victims of an apparent poison gas attack in the rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Monday after the U.N. team themselves survived a sniper attack that hit a vehicle in their convoy. (Abo Alnour Alhaji/REUTERS)

Chemical weapons: Can the West strike Syria without getting stuck? Add to ...

Western leaders are playing a delicate balancing act when it comes to developing a response to allegations that the Syrian government used chemical weapons: how to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad without getting in too deep militarily.

In the last few days several European countries, led largely by Britain, have said that the Syrian army was behind a chemical-weapons attack last week that killed hundreds of people – and that the Syrian government must be punished.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined the fray on Monday, saying that it was undeniable that chemical weapons were used against civilians in Syria, although he did not take the final step in naming the Syrian government as having used the weapons. He said, however, the Syrian government must be held accountable.

Mr. Kerry’s comments were hardening the position adopted by Mr. Obama, who seemed far more uncertain last week.

Now the question is how to respond. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has been leading the charge for a military response. “We cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it,” Mr. Hague said over the weekend. He went further Monday, suggesting that action could be taken without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, leaving the impression that NATO or some kind of coalition could carry out attacks.

French President François Hollande has been equally blunt, saying the West “cannot not react to the use of chemical weapons.”

Western allies are moving toward a position of punishing Mr. al-Assad without necessarily doing anything further to back the rebel opposition, said David Butter, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House. That might be more palatable to Mr. Obama and others, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are less gung ho about launching missiles.

“I don’t get the feeling that the U.S. or anybody else is, at the moment, interested in giving air cover for the rebel military campaign,” Mr. Butter said Monday. “The way it has been presented is this is a measure of retribution, or punishment, if you like, for what the regime has done on the chemical-weapons front specifically, and an attempt to being a deterrent against them doing it again.”

He added that the Western position “is that we have to make a credible statement that this kind of escalation [in chemical warfare] is something we’re not going to just stand by and watch. We’re going to hit your military structure very, very hard. But I don’t think for the moment that they’re ready for the extended kind of supporting operation that would go on until the rebels win.”

But the strategy isn’t without risk. This kind of punishment action is without a clear precedent, he added, and it is far from certain that it would even work. Syria is not Libya, which had a much weaker army and faced a more coherent opposition when Western allies launched air strikes in 2011. The West has also been divided about how to support the Syrian rebels, with countries like Canada opposing any supply of arms, fearing the weapons will end up in the hands of Islamist extremists.

Britain, on the other hand, has been a staunch supporter of arming the rebels and pushed successfully earlier this year to get the European Union to lift its embargo on arms shipments. The British have deep historic ties in the region and have been calling for the removal of Mr. al-Assad ever since the Arab Spring began in 2011. However, British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives do not have a majority in Parliament and their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are less convinced about the need for military action. Mr. Cameron will face stiff opposition in the House of Commons on any plan to involve the country’s armed forces in Syria.

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