The motive and timing of the alleged chemical attack last week in Damascus appear strange, but Western powers including the US, UK and France, backed by other regional players including Turkey now seem convinced that there is sufficient evidence for a regime-initiated attack on rebel positions in the outskirts of the Syrian capital killed hundreds and hurt thousands more.
As I write, the diplomatic game is being played out , interacting with announced military preparations – and the situation is developing rapidly. But what do we know?
Given the number of dead, and the uniquely distressing way in which video from camera phones can spread images of asphyxiated babies across the world, there were immediate international protests and demands for investigation. But, as Syria has persistently refused to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which created a specialist Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), laboriously negotiated, ad hoc arrangements are necessary.
As previous allegations of the use of chemical weapons by Syria mounted over the past year, Ban Ki-Moon invoked a special authority originally established in 1987 to respond to (later well justified) suspicions of chemical use by Iraq. This had led to the creation of team of 20 inspectors headed by professor Ake Sellstrom.
After prolonged diplomacy, the team was recently accepted into Syria, but with an undesirably constrained mandate - to examine only the specific sites of alleged use, and simply to establish whether chemicals had been used, but not who might have been responsible for it. The UN team has been in Damascus since 21 August and had been trying to reach sufficient agreement with the Syrian government to enable them to go anywhere.
Initial indications were that they would not be allowed to visit Ghouta. But the Syrian government reversed its position in response to indications of military preparation by the US and allies, and also, it is thought, diplomatic pressures from Russia and Iran. But the first day’s visit had to be cut short and the second day’s work was cancelled for disputed reasons.
There is a risk in premature generalisation from past experiences, but as a former UN Commissioner who spent time in Baghdad, this begins to look disturbingly like the cheat and retreat delaying tactics of another Ba'athist regime under pressure to account for itself: Saddam’s Iraq.
A challenging investigation
This will be a relatively new kind of activity for UN experts under the direction of the Security Council. Weapons inspectors sound familiar in the long-running Iraqi context, but in Syria they would be not be seeking out prohibited chemical capabilities (work which in some ways resembles industrial archaeology) but conducting something more like a police examination of chemical use in a war crime.
This will proceed by forensic examination of the scene, which had been subsequently bombarded and perhaps deliberately cratered and expertly interfered with. They will have to do this in the midst of a civil war and deliberate targeting of their vehicles by unidentified snipers.
Their practical freedom of operation and formal entitlement to question the Syrian military, quite apart from the degree of cooperation they might receive, are still uncertain. Given a profoundly split Security Council, this investigatory task may be even more controversial and problematic for diplomatic agreement than the disarmament of Saddam’s Iraq.
OPCW structures presumably cannot be used and no intermediary multinational UN Commission, like UNSCOM and UNMOVIC, appears to have been formally constituted to receive and assess field reports. Professor Sellstrom’s assessments will therefore presumably have to go straight to the Security Council, where profound differences can be expected over the wording and tone of resultant conclusions and resolutions.
How will we know?
Western governments have frequently stressed the urgency of investigations and their pressure seems to have overcome initial Syrian government obstruction. But the five-day delay is not necessarily disastrous. Traces of chemical weapons used at Halabja in 1988 were found four years afterwards in the bomb impact craters.
Sarin is the chemical type believed to be widespread in the Syrian arsenal and frequently mentioned as suspected in the Ghouta attacks. It evaporates from the ground relatively quickly in high temperatures and starts breaking down in the blood after 48 hours. In the initial 24-hour window blood samples are the best way to determine its presence. After that, hair and urine samples are more useful. Ideally samples would be taken from sarin victims within three weeks.
But some sarin metabolites could be traced in urine for up to six weeks. Sarin is relatively well understood. But if, as some commentators have suggested, unspecified riot control agents had been used in concentrations leading to suffocation, or some cocktail of industrial or pesticide organophosphates related, but not identical, to military nerve gases had been employed (perhaps to complicate any subsequent hypotheses) the scientific investigation could be more complicated.
NATO has specialist military teams trained and equipped to check the chemicals in active war zones. The civilian UN team may not have such capabilities.
Crime and no punishment?
Even if such an investigation were to show that chemical weapons had indeed been employed, would anyone be brought to justice?
There’s a surprisingly long list of incidents in which it is alleged that chemical and biological weapons have been deployed (even after World War I, and including the Russian revolution, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Iran-Iraq war and Fallujah in Iraq). The precedents for agreement on the truth and punishment of any culprits are not good.
Only in the Iraqi case, when Saddam’s regime had been eliminated by invasion and its senior members systematically hunted down and arrested does there seem to have been any successful prosecution and punishment of those responsible.
We must expect the same in Syria: only if the Assad regime were to be overthrown and officials responsible for chemical attacks failed to obtain sanctuary elsewhere (presumably in Iran, or in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon, but perhaps also in Putin’s Russia) would they be likely to face prosecution and imprisonment.
Assuming that Syrian government guilt for Ghouta is convincingly established, calls for accountability would have then to imply a commitment to end the Assad regime and with it the personal impunity of its decision-makers.
What chance a WMD-free Middle East?
The question now posed by the Ghouta atrocity is whether effective investigation, attribution, and enforcement of consequences can be achieved, even for unconcealable and internationally horrifying chemical attacks on civilians. The answer cannot fail to have an effect on the credibility of wider expectations of arms control and disarmament. It may become significantly more difficult to maintain confidence that treaties and international control regimes will in fact hold.
While Ghouta emphasises the desirability of removing all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, it also shows up the difficulty in believing that states would actually keep their promises.
And the controversy about what should now be done illuminates a wider global divide. A small group of rich, well armed and overwhelmingly white Western nations again and again take it upon themselves to lead in the enforcement of international treaty obligations or the protection of civilian lives. In the name of world order and human rights they have shown themselves repeatedly (though not universally) prepared to resort first to economic coercion through sanctions, and,then, if necessary, to interventionary violence.
They are resented, and frequently diplomatically blocked by other states such as Russia, which feels displaced from its proper role in the world, or by the numerous nations with lively recollections of colonial oppression. This group sees assertive Western behaviour as bullying, hypocritical, hegemonic, lawless and incompatible with a rules-based world.
In response to such tensions (which will be recognised by most people who have spent time in the UN building), the Security Council persistently fails to achieve necessary consensus.
Again and again the alternatives are stark. Intervene and the risks are horrifying. Do nothing - and so avoid military conflict and international acrimony, but thereby accept accelerated leakage of confidence in the achieved global system of disarmament, arms control, non-proliferation, and state restraint.
This is a wicked problem with two principles (often labelled formal legality versus moral legitimacy) in grinding dispute. But under these ugly yet ineluctable circumstances, a default option to do nothing is a far-reaching decision in itself.