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Syria: A Chemical Crime, A Complex Reaction

Syria: A Chemical Crime, A Complex Reaction

President Bashar al-Assad’s battle against a popular insurgency has killed 100,000 people and displaced more than six million.

In early spring France’s ambassador to the United Nations dined with a Russian colleague and discussed the crisis in Syria.

Ambassador Gerard Araud told the Russian diplomat France was going to go public with proof from its intelligence services that Syria’s government was using chemical weapons against its own people. The Russian diplomat laughed, according to a source familiar with the meeting. “Gerard,” he told his counterpart, “don’t embarrass the Americans.”

It was a revealing exchange. France and Britain had been pressing for almost a year for the United States to engage more directly in the war in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s battle against a popular insurgency has killed 100,000 people and displaced more than six million. But Washington had resisted pleas for action, reluctant to get sucked into another Middle East quagmire after a decade of fighting and misadventure in Iraq and Afghanistan. It had no desire for France to pile on further pressure by telling the world Assad was committing atrocities with weapons of mass destruction.

Even when the French went public with their claims in early June, the Obama administration said it needed more time and evidence to judge what had happened. A couple of weeks later the White House said that U.S. intelligence agencies had “high confidence” that Assad had launched small scale chemical attacks at various points over the previous year. But while Paris said all options were on the table, Washington played down the attacks, merely promising to give more aid to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria.

The gap between the two Western allies was just one awkward step in an extraordinary two-year dance around the civil war in Syria. That dance, detailed here with reporting drawn from interviews with senior diplomats and officials over the past year, has grown ever more complicated in recent weeks after graphic evidence of a much bigger chemical attack hit computer and television screens around the world on Aug. 21.

Videos posted online after the attack showed hundreds of people in suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus struck by a mysterious, lethal affliction. Men, women and children struggled for breath, foaming at the mouth and twitching. Other scenes showed scores of corpses with no obvious wounds.

Rebels said Assad had killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons. Assad denied it, but the evidence suggested otherwise.

In the first few days after the attack it appeared likely that the United States and some of its allies would launch airstrikes on Assad and his military. In 2012, Obama had called a chemical attack in Syria a “red line” that should not be crossed.

But as the U.S. president began trying to convince Congress to back military strikes, the lack of political enthusiasm became obvious – and not just in Washington.

Many in the West questioned the logic of military intervention. Fatigued – financially, politically, emotionally – by Iraq and Afghanistan, voters in the United States, Britain and elsewhere worry whether military action will help in Syria; from Louisiana to Leeds they have let their elected officials know they oppose a strike.

Britain’s parliament voted against military action, and last week, with a vote on the issue in the U.S. Congress seemingly headed for defeat, an alternative response emerged, partly by design and partly by accident.

After nearly three days of talks between Washington and Moscow, which has long backed Assad and his forces, the United Nations Security Council will vote on a resolution that will see Syria hand over control of its chemical weapons to international inspectors, who will destroy them.

The resolution targets only the chemical weapons and does not address the wider war in Syria, which seems likely to rage on.

EARLY PRESSURE

It was the recently defeated French president Nicolas Sarkozy who first urged the West to confront Assad with military force.

As most of France’s political class headed for their holidays in August last year, Sarkozy, who had lost out to Francois Hollande for the presidency in May, spoke by telephone with a key figure in the opposition to Assad – Abdulbasit Seida, then leader of the Syrian National Council.

His 40-minute call with Seida was aimed at putting pressure on Hollande to get more involved in Syria.

How far it influenced Hollande is unclear. But soon afterwards, France called an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council at foreign minister level. The U.S. response was lukewarm: Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, did not attend. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also did not show. France’s push to provide aid directly to rebel areas met with little support other than from Britain and Turkey, who called for the immediate establishment of safe zones in Syria.

The French, who had been disparaged in the run-up to the Iraq war as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” for their aversion to military action, did not give up. They put out feelers about the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone. French diplomatic sources told Reuters that Paris was considering supplying heavy artillery to the rebels to protect them from government attacks if the opposition were able to create a transitional government.

France’s ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevalier, who had been withdrawn from the country earlier in the year as Assad’s crackdown intensified, publicly said that Hollande had instructed him to help organise the opposition and make contact with armed groups. Paris, he said, was “seriously” discussing the issue of arming the rebels. Chevalier was the first Western envoy to meet General Salim Idriss, a defector from Assad’s forces who had become the chief of staff of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The French were not bent purely on military action: They felt full American engagement was necessary for other measures to work, including dealing with Russia. “The idea was that in terms of balance of power if the U.S. was not completely on board with all its muscle we wouldn’t be able to wrestle the Russians,” one French diplomat said. “The idea wasn’t to persuade them to go to war, but to get involved seriously on the Syrian dossier.”

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