The crisis in Syria has reached a new level today. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced today that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons against rebel forces “on a small scale”. While intelligence services are not a hundred percent sure, the fact that they came out with the statement seems to confirm what many observers had feared. The British Foreign Office made similar allegations, stating that it has “limited but persuasive information from various sources” that chemical weapons such as sarin gas have been used. This is a war crime.
People such as Senator McCain, who has long been a proponent of US-military intervention and assistance to the rebels, stated today that Syria crossed a “red line.” But Washington is more careful, even though President Obama has stated before that the use of chemical weapons would be “a game changer.” The wounds of the Iraq war and the “yet to be found” (aka non-existent) Weapons of Mass Destruction are still open. As NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden explained, they learned from their experience.
Could this be a turning point? It is difficult to say. But the tone has clearly changed quite dramatically in Washington. On Tuesday still, the White House had announced that the government could not arrive to the conclusion that such weapons had been used. President Obama now seems to take the information very seriously. Countries such as France and Britain may now be in a better position to convince their partners to act. However, there is still a need to be carefully. France and Britain have been calling for a lifting of the arms embargo in order to arm the rebels. The US government has refused to do so until now, underlining the some of the rebels’ links with Al Qaida. It is obvious that the embargo does not affect Al Assad. He gets his weapons from somebody else. But it is also important to understand out who the rebels are: we have waited for so long to act that the situation has gotten extremely complex. Nonetheless, we also have a responsibility to act, whatever this action is. If we fail to do so, if the US government fails to stay true to its warnings even though the “red line” may have been crossed, Assad will only use the absence of reaction to make more use of chemical weapons.