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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.

TALK, BUT NO ACTION

But Obama’s reluctance to get involved was made clear in an interview in January with the American magazine New Republic. “In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? … Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? … And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

The British fared little better than the French in convincing Obama to get tough. “The British were always closer to us than the Americans,” one French diplomat said. “The clearest example was the chemical weapons because when we made our findings public, the Americans were still asking for more evidence.”

During a marathon meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on May 27 the British, backed by Paris, succeeded in lifting the EU embargo against sending arms to the Syrian rebels, although both countries agreed to hold back on making a decision on deliveries until at least Aug. 1. The Americans were not involved in the EU decision, though they quietly backed it.

The froideur between the United States and the French was clear. John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, were due to meet in Paris that evening to discuss their Geneva 2 initiative to get Assad and the opposition to the negotiating table. Despite the location, the French were not initially invited to the talks, diplomatic sources said.

NEW ISOLATIONISTS?

In June, when France announced that tests it had carried out on blood, soil, urine and clothes samples from Syria showed that sarin had been used, Washington vacillated. It eventually agreed that sarin had been used in “limited” amounts.

Washington remained more interested in negotiating a solution to the crisis than any form of military action. A U.S. diplomat told Reuters at the time: “This U.S. administration is extremely worried about falling into the regional trap and getting sucked into the Middle East, and with Syria they are facing a country that is very well-armed and they really don’t know what the consequences would be and for that reason they don’t want to get caught out.”

Almost two and a half years after protests first began in Syria, the West had still given little help to the rebels, least of all weapons capable of countering Assad’s vastly superior firepower, in particular his fighter jets.

Speaking before the chemical attacks in April, a senior Western diplomatic source said: “Obama has Iraq, Afghanistan behind him. He tells his entourage ‘prove to me that American intervention (in Syria) would improve the situation’. It’s a legitimate position.”

The source added: “Obama’s focus is rebuilding America and putting its interests first.”

Washington’s interest in Syria was also influenced by Russia’s stance. After Moscow first used its veto in the U.N. Security Council to block a move towards sanctions on Assad in October 2011, the United States felt it was futile to push for strong action. Washington had concluded that the “re-Putinization of Russian foreign policy,” as one senior European diplomat called it, meant an agreement with Moscow was out of the question without a major shift in the military situation on the ground.

IN LONDON, A VOTE

Britain’s David Cameron was on a beach holiday with his family when news of the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Syria broke. He and Obama spoke on the phone about what to do next. Haunted by his country’s unpopular intervention in Iraq in 2003, Cameron had until now privately ruled out arming the Syrian opposition, focusing instead on supplying humanitarian aid and trying to set up peace talks. But the images he saw changed his mind.

Cameron promised Obama that British forces would take part in punitive military strikes if serious proof that Assad and his lieutenants had been behind the chemical attack was obtained. The British prime minister recalled parliament, which was on its annual summer break, for a one-day debate to vote on taking military action against Syria “in principle”.

In the days before the debate, British MPs were inundated by phone calls, emails and Twitter messages from voters opposed to military action on the grounds that it would fuel more violence and suck Britain into another costly war.

Cameron lost the vote by 285 to 272 votes, the first time a British leader had been defeated on such a matter since 1782. Even some of his own Conservative lawmakers rebelled against him and the opposition Labour party lined up against him too, despite demanding and getting numerous concessions. Visibly angry, Cameron conceded defeat. “It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action – I get that and the government will act accordingly.”

British government officials said later that they could have won a vote a week later because more Conservative lawmakers could have been present and it would have given Cameron more time to broker a deal with Labour.

In Washington, White House officials realised even before the vote in London that British resolve had begun to crumble. One U.S. official said the administration had underestimated how much of a hold the memories of Iraq still had on British lawmakers.

Obama had to decide whether or not to proceed with military action without British support. The day after the UK vote, during a stroll around the White House grounds with his top adviser, he chose a middle route, deciding to get Congress to sign off on a military strike.

Despite the British ‘no’ vote and Obama’s decision to go to Congress, France appeared as determined as ever to act. Even if Congress decided to vote against a strike, Paris said, France would up its military aid to Syrian rebels as a way to change the balance of power on the ground. A senior French official lamented that the West should have intervened 18 months ago. “We told the Americans that they had to go in hard, but they kept insisting that they would be leading this and it was them on the front line if it happened,” he said.

In Moscow, Putin saw things differently. Publicly, he said rebels were behind the chemical attack. Behind the scenes, though, some diplomats were hearing that Russia and Syria would try to head off a strike with a deal to decommission Assad’s chemical weaponry. “This is something being discussed by Russia and Syria,” a source close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Reuters on Aug. 29.

As leaders headed to a G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, opinion was split on how to proceed. The likelihood of a military strike was beginning to fade.

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