Out of Syria come reports alleging the worst chemical weapons attack yet. From the United Nations and the U.S. come the stock promises “to investigate this as soon as possible” (the UN) and “do our due diligence and get all the facts and determine what steps need to be taken” (the U.S.).
Fine — investigating, with due diligence, is a good move. Unless, of course, it amounts chiefly to a way of looking responsive while ducking the issue — defaulting to investigation not as a basis for effective action, but as a substitute for it.
Is anyone serious about actually stopping the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons?
The Obama administration has already investigated previous reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and in a June press briefing stated that American intelligence services assessed with “high confidence” that yes, indeed, the government of Syria had used chemical weapons. OK, but as reports roll in of a new attack, on the biggest scale yet… now what?
As for the UN, which, courtesy of the Assad regime, has a team of chemical weapons experts inside Syria right now, Roger Simon is quite correct that they are perforce puttering around, with no freedom to go when or where or how they might choose. Actually, it’s even worse than that. According to a spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, these inspectors have been tasked to determine if chemical weapons were used. But they have no mandate to determine who used them. (It’s an approach reminiscent of the UN Security Council’s absurd decision in 2010, after North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean frigate, to blame not North Korea, but the torpedo).
If the Assad regime is allowed to carry on with chemical weapons attacks, or even if it is simply perceived worldwide as having done so, the damage will go way beyond the horrors inside Syria. The message to other rogue regimes is that chemical weapons are no longer utterly taboo. They may be used (and tested in the process), at least at home, with relative impunity. The current rules of the game are that the UN will respond with an investigation that is impotent, and the U.S. will respond with investigations that are effectively irrelevant, because they don’t translate into policy or action that makes any serious difference.
That is an enormously dangerous message to send to Syria’s chief partners in proliferation: Iran and North Korea. Perhaps, while all the investigating is going on, the investigators should take a close look at North Korea’s intimate connections to Syria’s chemical weapons program, and tell us all a lot more about what’s really going on with this axis of poison gas, and what might be done. More on this scene in my article on “North Korean-Syrian Chemistry: The Weapons Connections.”
image illustration courtesy shutterstock / Sergey Nivens