Has Syria really used sarin gas? And what are the implications of "war crimes" and "red lines?" British policy expert Sashank Joshi deciphers British Prime Minister David Cameron's comments on Syria.
DW: British Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken of "war crimes" to describe the unverified use of chemical weapons by Syria. What are the implications of that term?
Sashank Joshi: First of all, it's to convey the severity of the situation, to show that this is beyond simply the shelling of neighborhoods, or the use of Scud missiles - that this is a qualitatively horrific action undertaken by the regime. So partly this is propaganda. But more than that, I think it's a threat of potential further prosecution. It's a threat that Assad, or his field commanders, who order the use of such weapons and conduct the attacks, will be held liable at the International Criminal Court if this conflict does come to an end and they are captured alive. So it's a legal threat, and I think in doing that, it's implicitly a warning against further such attacks.
The Defense Science and Technology Laboratory in Wiltshire is reported to have obtained samples from inside Syria, and it sounds like they've tested positive for sarin?
Well, the UK has partly played a role in smuggling out soil samples from Syria, and possibly human tissue. We don't know that for sure. And then those tests were carried out both here in the UK at our facility, and elsewhere in the UK. And I think both tests have showed some level of use of sarin - they've shown sarin. What they haven't shown is where or when the sarin was used, by whom it was used, [or] who the victims were. And can we be 100 percent sure that these samples come from the attacked areas? Or might they have been altered or tampered in the process? In other words, there is evidence of use, but the evidence is clouded in all of these uncertainties and questions.
And therefore, while the Brits are being quite hawkish about this - we're saying, "Yes, it's been used, it's limited but persuasive evidence" - and it's all very suggestive and pretty good, the Americans have bigger stakes. Because, of course, they're the ones who've drawn the lines on chemical weapons use, they're the ones who would be leading any consequent military action and therefore they have emphasized all of those uncertainties that I mentioned above and said, "Further evidence is needed."
And there's a further point: Even if all of those answers come back in the affirmative; even if it's judged with high confidence that sarin was used by the regime in this attack at this place, and it was authorized, then the other question is: What scale? That is, was it one-off? Did it only kill 10 people? Or was it on a much bigger scale, was it repeated?
To what extent do Prime Minister David Cameron's comments imply further financial assistance for the rebels - and even military intervention at some point?
These recent allegations of chemical attacks may actually make it more difficult to intervene in that way. Because the problem is, if you intervene at a time when chemical weapons may be used, may be moved around, may be moved from their secure storage sites, does it increase the risk that a rebel group - and not necessarily the one you support - will seize access to these weapons, or will otherwise come into contact with them? So I think, because the picture is growing murkier and more unstable, there will be many people in both London and Paris and Washington, saying, "Actually, this weakens the case for arming and financing the rebels, rather than strengthening it."
To some extent this all feels like a re-run of recent history, with the US looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the UK's former Blair government seeming to follow the US into Iraq. Are we seeing history repeat itself here?
I see that the administrations in question see similarities; that is, they understand the risks involved in this respect. The White House, in particular, has this incredible risk aversion. A lot of it has to do with Iraq; a lot of it has to do with the awareness that going to war on uncertain evidence could be absolutely devastating for the reputation of the United States. So, the Iraq analogy hangs over them. What I should say is, we should clarify David Cameron's comments; at least, the ones he made to British media. He said, "This should form for the international community a red line for us to do more." That is, he's not necessarily saying, "We need to go to war." And he perhaps is tacitly acknowledging the fact that the evidence is not rock solid.
But the important difference in this case to Iraq is that the US administration, 10 years ago, was desperately looking to manipulate evidence - not necessarily fabricate - but certainly to see what they [wanted] to see in terms of making the case for war on the basis of weapons of mass destruction. This US administration, ten years on, is in some ways precisely the opposite. That is, it's trying to look at the evidence in the most skeptical way imaginable.
So what happens next?
I think the US will place all of its efforts into strong-arming the United Nations and specifically the United Nations Security Council, including the permanent members Russia and China, who are opposed to such a move - to allow inspectors into the country; that they should pressure their ally, Assad, to give access to those suspected sites of chemical attacks, so that this evidence can be scrutinized and verified. Now, I think the Americans know that the Chinese and the Russians are going to resist that. They don't want to see inspectors forced into Syria, and they worry, I think, that this will be used as a pretext for future interventions. So, there's going to be a big diplomatic battle coming up.
I think if the present allegations continue as they are, with their current level of uncertainty, then nothing may happen. You may simply see a continuation of the status quo. But - but - if there are further incidents, and even if those incidents are uncertain and the evidence is hazy, I think you may very well see some form of airstrikes result - if the regime is thought to have repeated what it did last month, and conduct further attacks.
Sashank Joshi is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University's Department of Government.