Evidence is mounting that there was a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs earlier this week. The UN Security Council convened an emergency session to discuss the matter with the French demanding the use of force against the Ba’athist regime. Russia and China toned the matter down, and the best hope is that the weapon inspectors already there can get access to the site of the attack. Everyone will fuss about red lines crossed and crimes against humanity, but in the end, the civil war in Syria will continue as before.
Without access to the site of the attacks, it is impossible to conclude without any doubt that banned chemical weapons were used. Some of the video of the aftermath that has found its way onto the web shows people getting their eyes rinsed out. That would be consistent with the use of tear gas, which is not banned. However, there are also images of people in nightclothes lying perfectly still, others are having convulsions, and some appear to be foaming at the mouth. That is not consistent with tear gas.
Stephen Johnson, a former British Army Chemical weapons expert now attached to Cranfield University’s forensics department told the BBC, “The scale of this, the number of people who seem to be affected from the videos, the consistency of the symptoms, that’s a staggering enterprise to fake – not only staggering to fake but also very easily found out once an investigation takes place.”
NBC’s Richard Engel, who may be the best American reporter in the game right now, said much the same thing. Not only would the video have to be staged, but multiple sources he has known for years and whom he trusts would have to be persuaded to lie to him. Conspiracies are much harder to put into practice than many understand.
If the inspectors can develop evidence that sarin or something similar was used, the question will then become which side used it? The Damascus regime is sitting on a huge pile of gas munitions, but there is no reason to believe the rebels could not have captured some and decided to use it, And the Russians, who back the Al-Assad regime, will do all they can to blame the rebels.
The key, according to Mr. Johnson, is getting to the sites quickly. “It’s really critical to get onto the ground to see the impact sites as soon as possible. You need to try and find the remnants of these rockets and see if they are consistent with the pictures we have seen. Outside of 14 days it’s going to be really difficult to examine these scenes.” The chemical residue breaks down in that time leaving the inspectors with nothing but broken missiles that could have delivered anything.
But even if the inspectors uncover indisputable evidence that the regime used sarin, nothing will change because the outside powers have no more arrows in their respective quivers. The US Marines, the French Foreign Legion and Britain’s 2 Para are not going into Syria. The Russians, and to an extent the Chinese, will not allow a no-fly zone resolution to pass in the UNSC. The rebels are already getting arms and non-lethal aid. And no one appears ready for a cease-fire just yet. Outsiders can’t do anything to escalate the conflict, and no one appears willing to de-escalate.
Even after 100,000 dead, 1,000 of them by what appears to be sarin, there is no desire for a political solution to a political problem. As this journal suggested when the fighting began, the least bad result would be a military stalemate that resulted in a negotiated settlement that reformed the Syrian regime. It was a long shot then, and it remains a long shot now. One would not be surprised to write that same sentence in a year’s time.