“We have been very clear to the Assad regime and also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is : we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus, that would change my equation.”
U.S. President Obama speaking on the twentieth of August last year.
Since this warning was made, no fewer than 13 alleged chemical attacks have been recorded in Syria, most recently in eastern Ghouta Wednesday.
In this context, Barack Obama has a whole range of diplomatic and military options.
First, clearly, the facts have to be established.
UN inspectors arrived in Syrian capital Damascus on Sunday, to investigate other alleged chemical attacks.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon has asked Syrian President Assad for permission to investigate the attack on eastern Ghouta.
“I have called on the Syrian government to extend its full cooperation so that the mission can swiftly investigate this most recent incident.”
Still, the mandate does not allow the UN to ascribe blame for the alleged chemical attacks to one side or the other.
So what can be done ?
If the suspicions against the Assad regime continue, the United States could push for sanctions at the Security Council of the UN.
The risk is always a veto from Russia.
Moscow at this stage favours diplomatic pressure to convene an international peace conference.
But there’s a problem here. The Syrian opposition is fragmented.
Next option. At an unofficial level, the United States could enhance its medical and strategic assistance, also offer training and weapons to rebel groups deemed moderate.
The Americans have allegedly been doing this for months anyway at camps in Jordan and Turkey.
The French daily paper ‘Le Figaro’ says the first American trained fighters, supervised by Israeli, Jordanian and CIA commandos started military action in southern Syria on August the 17th.
Other option. Direct military intervention to establish a no-fly zone.
Costly financially – troops would be needed to bomb Syrian airports – and costly politically because this option would require the participation of the UK, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to confer international legitimacy.
And Russia and China would almost certainly oppose such military intervention.
Plus, this military option could pave the way for the destruction of part of the Syrian chemical arsenal.
With the attendant risks.
Military sites would become uncontrolled, even uncontrollable, which could allow jihadist extremists possible access to chemical weapons.
Final option, do nothing.
It is this which Damascus appears to be betting on.