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Red line crossed? The world reacts to chemical attacks in Syria

UN Inspectors

The world has collectively condemned the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria on Wednesday, which reportedly resulted in over 1,000 deaths.

The Syrian government has denied the use of chemical weapons, calling the allegations “illogical and fabricated,” and claim that they arepropaganda.” By contrast, Syrian opposition groups claim that the attacks were launched by government forces.

Regardless of the provenance of the attack, it is clear that there is now a significant danger of escalation in the conflict, pulling regional and global actors into a war which has already claimed upwards of 100,000 lives. As new information continues to trickle in, we explain where the major powers stand.

NATO powers: France, the UK and the US

Certain members of the international community have reacted more vocally to Wednesday’s alleged attacks than others.  In Europe, France has insisted that, should the allegations be confirmed, a “reaction of force” would be necessary.  Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, said that if the UN did not act, a decision would have to be made “in other ways.” Mr Fabius has confirmed that any action would not involve troops on the ground, but has not provided any details as to precisely what kind of force France may be considering.

The UK, while strongly condemning the alleged attacks, has not explicitly advocated for the use of force yet. The Foreign Office has said in a statement that a political solution is the preferred option now, and that the UK has written to the UN Secretary General to call for the UN to investigate the claims. However, the statement added that David Cameron and William Hague cannot rule out any option…that might save innocent lives in Syria.” It is unlikely that arming the rebels will be one of these options. A vote last month in the House of Commons established the need for Parliamentary consent for any shipment of arms to Syria from the UK. The strength of feeling among MPs was strongly against any such shipment, which could proliferate risks to civilians – a concern as valid today as it was before Wednesday’s attacks.

Although less direct than France’s statements, it seems fairly clear from this statement that the UK and France are roughly on the same page, as they have previously been about shipping weapons to certain Syrian opposition groups.

The United States has not yet described how it intends to respond to the attacks. The attacks in Damascus took place almost exactly a year after President Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” which would “change [his] calculus” with respect to the conflict.  The United States has come in for recent criticism for failing to react strongly enough to previous allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria. The White House has released a statement calling for the UN team in Syria to be given immediate access to the affected area, without hindrance from the Syrian government. For the moment, the US seems to be deferring to the UN and seeking a multilateral response to the crisis, though the Obama administration is also apparently considering military options including a cruise missile strike or a more sustained bombing campaign.

French and American fighter jets in formation.

As in Libya, the United States, the UK and France would probably take the lead in any multilateral military response in Syria. Such a response might entail declaring protected safe zones in rebel-controlled areas or launching air strikes against government, military and control facilities. All three nations, and any others which might join them, should bear in mind the unintended consequences inherent in any such operation and take every effort to protect the lives of non-combatants.


Neighbours: Turkey, Israel, and the Arab League

For the neighbouring countries, every escalation in the Syrian conflict has been regarded as a new threat to their own security.

The risk of spill-over has been a real one for many months. Casualties from cross-border shelling were reported in Lebanon as early as March 2012. Many of Syria’s neighbours are understandably on edge.

An incident of this magnitude and severity may well result in a collective hardening of existing positions.

Israel and Turkey are two of the most outspoken and powerful regional actors, and both have themselves fired explosive weapons into Syria on several occasions. It is likely that both countries will now be pushing for stronger action.

Although a senior Israeli officer has confirmed the use of chemical weapons in the Damascus attacks on Wednesday, Israel has largely refrained from commenting or judgement so far.

Israel signed the Chemical Weapon Convention in 1993, but has not ratified it.

However, Israel has already taken unilateral action on several occasions in a response to perceived threats. Israel’s air strikes have hit missile convoys and armed bases in and around Damascus. Military casualties were reported in strikes in both January and May this year. Despite the potential threat from powerful S-300 antiaircraft missiles (see below), such strikes may well continue in the future. Israel must be careful not to use explosive weapons in densely-populated areas in the event of any future action. Such use is likely to endanger civilians, who already face the daily bombardment at the hands of the warring factions in their own country.

Turkey has long been one of the fiercest critics of Syria. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said this week that “all red lines” have now been crossed in Syria. His pointed comments suggest an expectation that America will take action. “This is a responsibility for the sides who still set these red lines and for all of us,” he said.

Davutoğlu also reported his efforts Wednesday to lobby his Iranian counterpart to put pressure on the Syrian regime to allow UN inspectors access to the site of the attacks. Turkey’s most constructive role could be to wield its influence and authority within the region, and its efforts to bring pressure to bear through the Iranian government should be encouraged.

Turkey’s southern border with Syria has been repeatedly beset by explosive violence. Any fear that chemical weapons will be used along that border, where rebels still have a significant presence, may see an escalation in force from the Turkish military. Turkey already plays host to six Patriot missiles batteries, which are under NATO command and are deployed to protect Turkish civilians from the increasing use of ballistic missiles in Syria. With the ability to strike planes in Syrian airspace from launching positions in Turkey, these could now have a limited role to play in the creation of a no-flight zone over northern Syria. But such a use would require the batteries to be moved much closer to the border, and would necessitate a complete redrawing of NATO’s engagement in the Syrian conflict.

The Arab League, which includes Syrian neighbours Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, have been vocal in their condemnation of the “deplorable crime”, and have called for an investigation into the attacks. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both members of the League. They have been fuelling the conflict in Syria for months by trafficking powerful explosive weapons and small arms to rebel groups. There is no reason to think that these shipments will cease or slow in light of this new brutality in the country; indeed, the attack could have the opposite effect entirely.

A meeting of the Arab League.

The Arab League’s consent to a no-fly zone was seen as essential before NATO launched its intervention in Libya. No such collective calls have been made about Syria, although individual members have voiced their support for such a measure. It is yet to be seen how Wednesday’s attacks will change the regional calculus, but if the Syrian government was indeed behind the attacks in Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, this will further delegitimise it in the eyes of its former allies.

Individually and collectively, Syria’s neighbours will see Wednesday’s events as increasing the threat to their own citizens. In seeking to protect their own people, those states must ensure that their actions do not serve to increase the insecurity of Syria’s civilians themselves.

The Assad Bloc: Iran, China and Russia

Iran’s Press TV quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed-Javad Zarif as saying that, “If the use of chemical weapons is true, it has definitely been carried out by terrorist and Takfiri groups, because they have proved in action that they refrain from no crime.” Iran has been amongst Bashar al-Assad’s strongest and most consistent backers in the civil war, sending arms shipments and combat advisers on a regular basis, and loudly condemning both the rebels and any external efforts to support them.

Iran is notably one of a very small number of countries against which chemical weapons have been used within living memory. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used mustard gas, tabun and sarin against Iranian military forces a number of times. Iran has both signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and despite the ongoing controversy and international efforts around its alleged nuclear weapons programme, there is no real evidence that Iran maintains any offensive chemical weapons stockpiles or programmes.

Hassan Rouhani, the new President of Iran.

Iran is already heavily committed to its course of action in Syria. The preservation of the Assad regime is strategically critical to Iranian interests. Besides the inherent benefits of preserving an allied regime, Syria provides Iran direct access to Lebanon, home to its staunch ally Hezbollah. Despite the new, more moderate presidential administration and Iran’s own experiences with chemical weapons, the immediacy and definitiveness of their statements indicates that this event will only commit Iran to further fuelling the fire with deadly weapons and the knowhow to use them.

As with many matters of foreign policy, the government of China has been fairly restrained in its public statements about the chemical attack thus far. In its reporting on the incident, the state Xinhua news agency does not quote any Chinese officials directly, instead calling for clarity and investigation through the UN. As part of its general opposition to interventionism, China has backed the Syrian government and previously blocked UN sanctions efforts, but its direct support for the Syrian military since the beginning of the war has been limited. Interestingly, relatively modern Chinese-made FN-6 surface-to-air missiles have ended up in the hands of the rebels. These seem to have been delivered to the rebels without the Chinese government’s knowledge or consent, which has not stopped the missile manufacturers from trying to capitalise on rebel use of the FN-6 in combat.

Like Iran, China has suffered chemical weapons attacks, although less recently. Between 1937 and 1945, Imperial Japan used chemical weapons against China, causing up to 80,000 casualties. China ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 and has been undertaking the destruction of its offensive chemical weapons programmes ever since.

China’s general stance is to staunchly oppose foreign interventions. But it does make exceptions, as in Libya, and its public restraint thus far raises the possibility that its leaders are still actively considering the issue.

The foreign ministry of Russia has expressed its suspicion that the attack was carried out by rebels, timed to coincide with the presence of UN inspectors in the country and designed to delegitimize the Assad regime. But Russian officials are also calling for the UN to be given immediate access to the site of the attack.

Russia has more direct interests in Syria than China. Until very recently, the Russian Navy operated a naval facility – its only Mediterranean base – in the Syrian city of Tartus. As of June, though, the Russian military had effectively closed the Tartus base. Furthermore, it has been steadily evacuating the 30,000 Russian nationals previously resident in Syria.

Despite these steps to protect its interests, Russia continues to support and supply the Assad regime. The majority of the Syrian military’s weaponry is of Russian or Soviet design. Russia continues to supply new and refurbished weapons, including light attack aircraft and attack helicopters, and to provide training and maintenance services. Those contracts are part of an estimated $5 billion in existing and prospective arms sales which provide a significant financial incentive for continued Russian engagement. The Russian government argues that it is simply honouring pre-existing contracts rather than actively equipping the Assad regime in its combat against the rebels.

Most significant will be what Russia decides to do with its contract to supply advanced S-300 (NATO designation: SA-10) surface to air missiles to Syria. While the S-300s are irrelevant to the fighting between government forces and rebels, owing to the lack of any rebel aircraft whatsoever, they are incredibly significant to the broader regional context. Syria’s other air defences are generally not thought to be capable of holding off modern, Western air forces – indeed, the Israeli Air Force has on several recent occasions struck Syrian targets without suffering any losses. But the S-300 is a modern and powerful system which could threaten attacking Israeli or NATO warplanes or even – thanks to its long range – be fired at civil or military aircraft operating over Israeli, Jordanian or Turkish airspace. The Russian government claims it has not yet delivered these weapons to Syria; nor is it clear how soon after delivery they could be made operational. But an acceleration or cancelation of this contract could be the clearest signal of the Russian government’s reaction to the latest developments.

A Russian S-300 missile launcher.

Russia has ratified the CWC and continues to work towards the destruction of its enormous stockpile of ex-Soviet chemical weapons. It has also collaborated with the West on strategic issues in the region before, abstaining from the vote on military intervention in Libya and reversing its decision to sell S-300s to Iran, so it is within the bounds of possibility that Russia might reconsider its continuing support for the Syrian military. But given Russia’s geopolitical interests in Syria, the current poor state of its relations with the West and its rapid and aggressive statements in defence of the Syrian government, a change in strategic direction seems unlikely.


Every escalation in the Syrian conflict over the last year has seen an entrenchment of existing positions amongst interested parties in response. In the face of these attacks, which are seemingly the most extreme escalation yet, we are seeing the prospects for external intervention grow, with all the risks that entails. Given the competing interests in Syria, any intervention is likely to be met with unpredictable counter-escalation.

The one apparent point of agreement at this stage is the need for the UN inspectors currently in Syria to visit the site of the attack. The Security Council has asked for “clarity,” and has “welcomed the determination of the Secretary General to ensure a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation.” However, as the Syrian government would have to explicitly consent to such a inspection, it already seems unlikely that the UN team will be able to visit the scene of the attacks. There is no sign as of yet that such authorisation will be granted, and the value of such a visit will only diminish further as more time passes. A longer delay will only lead to less reliable information, more disinformation to fill the void and more entrenchment amongst the concerned parties. The more entrenched those positions become, the less likely we are to see a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict.