Beyond the Red Line

Joost Lagendijk
August 24, 2013

At the moment of writing this column, Friday morning, there is growing evidence that two days ago chemical weapons were used in a raid by the Syrian army on a rebel-held neighborhood near Damascus in what is most probably the worst and most lethal attack of its kind since the infamous onslaught by Saddam Hussein on Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988.

Shocking videos of hundreds of victims, many of them children, leave little room for doubt that what happened in Ghouta will go down in history as a crime against humanity. Many newspapers in the US, the UK and other European countries have presented eyewitness accounts from Syrian activists and journalists who describe the horrors in gruesome detail. The victims' symptoms (convulsions, constricted pupils, blurred vision and impaired breathing) are all the classic signs of chemical weapons exposure. Nerve gas experts that carefully examined the images have come to the conclusion that the combination of symptoms and the scale of the atrocities are all indications that a nerve agent was used. They strongly deny that all these pieces of evidence could have been faked, as was suggested by the Syrian authorities and their Russian backers, who accuse the Syrian rebels of killing their own people in an effort to trigger a Western reaction.

It seems inevitable that the US and some European countries will have to respond to this new twist in the Syrian conflict. Cynics are afraid, however, that the Obama administration is so averse to any direct military involvement that it will adopt the same kind of ostrich position to the chemical weapons in Syria as it did with the military coup in Egypt and simply deny there is sufficient proof. In a first reaction to the news reports, US spokespersons stressed that they need to be able to conclusively determine whether chemical weapons were used and that getting this verification might be hard because no full or unfettered access is allowed by the Syrian government.

That cautionary approach is directly linked to the presence of a specialized UN team in Damascus right now, investigating previous claims about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. What would be more logical than sending these specialists to the Ghouta area, which is very close to the place they are staying? The familiar Russian and Chinese sabotage in the UN Security Council has prevented a quick reality check, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been forced to send one of his deputies to Damascus to negotiate with the Syrian authorities for UN access to the spots where the most recent chemical attacks allegedly took place.

This will all cause delays that only play into the hands of the perpetrators of the attacks, who know very well that with every day passing it will be more difficult to collect the evidence. Still, my guess is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not get away with this irrational provocation. The main reason is the so-called red line drawn by Obama exactly one year ago, when he said Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer.” Influential media such as The Economist and The New York Times have all warned the American president that his credibility is at stake now. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it, “a president of the US cannot say something crosses a red line and then go on conducting business as usual.”

Whatever the timing and substance of the reaction will be, one thing is clear, and that is the enormous consequences it will have for Turkey. An expanded and intensified war next door will mean more refugees fleeing to Turkey, more direct logistical and, most probably, military involvement in the conflict and therefore greater chances of being dragged into the Syrian swamp as a result of provocations and uncontrollable incidents on either side of the border.

There is no escape here for a government that has been pushing for more tough action against the Assad regime for a long time. One can only hope that Turkish society is able and willing to cope with the undoubtedly ugly fallout of this next phase as well.


PN Member Joost Lagendijk is a former Member of the European Parliament and currently writes for the Turkish Dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.


Photo by Pan-African News Wire Files.