A crime against humanity in Syria

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was unequivocal: “Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator. This is a grave challenge to the entire international community — and to our common humanity.” He is right. Unfortunately, questions still swirl around the use of chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus last weekend, with both sides in the bloody civil war accusing the other.

There is an easy solution: The Syrian government should allow U.N. inspectors full access to the battlefield, and ensure that all their questions are answered. That will allow the world to come to an informed and accurate assessment of what happened and punish the transgressors accordingly. And they must be punished.

Chemical agents were dispersed in the early morning hours of Aug. 21 in a rebel-held area outside the Syrian capital of Damascus that had been under a Syrian army siege. The international medical group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that three hospitals received 3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms, ranging from pinpoint pupils to convulsions. Atropine, a standard treatment for sarin gas, was used in response. Without fixing blame, MSF concluded that all the evidence “strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.”

It is estimated that 1,338 people were killed in the attack, including a number of medical personnel who died while treating victims. The day after the chemical assault, the Syrian Army followed up with a more conventional attack.

The Syrian government first denied that chemical weapons were used, then when faced with incontrovertible evidence, denied that it was responsible. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi explained that “we have never used chemical weapons (around Jobar) or any other region in any form whatsoever … liquid, gas or whatever.” He insisted that the rebels are to blame for using chemical weapons. Opposition leaders deny any involvement in the attack.

There is considerable evidence that suggests government culpability. The targets were in rebel-held areas, as were the majority of victims. Experts note that the way that the weapons were used suggests familiarity with or training for maximum effect. Reportedly, U.S. intelligence sources have evidence of activity at known Syrian government sites that house chemical weapons prior to the attacks. The Syrian government has hindered as much as helped a team of U.N. inspectors who have tried to obtain evidence of the attacks. It withheld access for five days, all the while engaging in military bombardments that appeared to be designed to destroy evidence. If Damascus is innocent of the accusations, it would do its best to get the evidence out and count on its allies in the United Nations Security Council, Russia in particular, to make Syria’s case. Anything less suggests that Damascus has something to hide.

Most observers believe the government was on the offensive and winning in the area that was attacked. Using chemical weapons in that case does not make sense. Moreover, there are the more basic questions of how the rebels would have obtained such weapons and the delivery systems, and whether they are cold blooded enough to use them against their own soldiers and supporters.

But whoever is responsible for the use of these weapons must be punished. The question, of course, is how. The use of chemical weapons is, as Mr. Moon pointed out, a crime against humanity. It is not up to a single nation to act against the perpetrator. Rather, it is incumbent on the community of nations acting as a whole to condemn and make those consequences real. Anything less is not only a dereliction of duty but a signal to would-be transgressors that they are free to act as they choose.

The sad truth, however, is that United Nations authorized action is unlikely. For whatever the reason, Russia appears committed to shielding the Syrian government regardless of the evidence. So that responsibility will devolve to other nations to uphold the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons. The likeliest course of action is air strikes by the United States, Britain and France against Syrian government targets. The U.S. government is already weighing its options. It is very important that any such action have the backing of the Arab League, which would represent a “stamp of approval” by regional governments.

Eager to avoid the prospect of getting bogged down in yet another war, a ground assault is not among U.S. President Barack Obama’s options. This means that the Syrian government will be slapped but will not be threatened by the actions against it. In fact, the Assad government has long anticipated such a tepid reaction; this is not the first time that chemical weapons have reportedly been used in the conflict and Damascus well knows that the U.S. has little stomach for a large-scale intervention that would turn the tide in the country’s civil war. Moreover, the many uncertainties surrounding the results of such move have encouraged interventionist governments to stay their hand. As a result, world leaders only rail against the crimes committed to avoid looking impotent in response. Their stance is understandable, but it is unlikely to discourage such atrocities in the future.