With Western leaders claiming to have irrefutable evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, support for punitive military action is mounting among nations horrified by what they say was a war crime.
The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Turkey and Syria's concerned Arab neighbors have vowed to act forcefully to deter Syria or any other nation from resorting to use of banned weapons.
What remained undecided, analysts said Monday, was the nature, scope and timing of the action to punish Assad for the apparent Aug. 21 gas attacks that may have killed more than 1,000 people.
U.N. inspectors are in Syria to determine whether the attacks in heavily contested territory outside of Damascus involved the use of banned chemical substances. If so, that would constitute "a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in his South Korean homeland on Monday. He added that if evidence proves the use of poison gas, the international community "cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity."
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry expressed no doubt about the use of chemical weapons or which side in the protracted conflict used them. He said the Obama administration was in possession of "undeniable" evidence of brutal government-launched chemical attacks.
“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,” Kerry said in a televised address from the State Department. “By any standard, it is inexcusable."
Kerry's bitter denunciation of Assad seemed to portend an impending attack on Syrian government positions or assets, despite recent polls showing little U.S. support for intervention in another Middle East conflict. A Reuters/Ipsos poll published Saturday showed only 9% of respondents wanted President Obama to make good on his threat to get involved in the Syrian civil war if Damascus crossed the "red line" and used chemical or biological weapons.
Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, also told reporters that the White House believes “there is very little doubt” that Assad is responsible for the attack reported to have asphyxiated and burned its victims.
While Ban seemed to imply personal support for serious sanctions against the Assad government if the gas attacks are confirmed and traced to Syrian government forces, the United Nations' only body empowered to mete out sanctions is the deeply divided Security Council. Russia, one of the five veto-wielding permanent members, repeatedly has thwarted U.N. punishment efforts for alleged atrocities by Assad during the 2 1/2-year-old war that has taken more than 100,000 lives.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Moscow's opposition to any military strike on Syria, arguing that those calling for punitive action have no evidence that the Assad government was responsible for the deadly incidents. He alluded to Russia's refusal to approve sanctions on its Middle East ally when he reminded those calling for airstrikes that “the use of force without [authorization] of the U.N. Security Council is a crude violation of international law.”
International security experts said the growing consensus among Western leaders that the attacks cannot go unpunished has spurred expectations of a U.S.-led cruise missile attack on the Syrian government in the next few days.
The impending operation that already has naval and air forces massing in the Mediterranean "has to be large enough of a strike to inflict enough pain and cost among the Syrians that they would be discouraged from using chemical weapons again," said Richard Haass, president of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
In an interview Monday, Haass disputed the Russian claim that only the U.N. has the power to authorize punitive military actions.
"The U.N. Security Council is not the sole or unique custodian of what is legal and what is legitimate," he said, predicting that dozens of countries will participate in a "coalition of the willing" being brought together under NATO auspices.
To say that only the Security Council can green-light operations gives power to outliers to block necessary actions, Haass said.
"It would allow, in this case a country like Russia, to be the arbiter of international law and international relations," he said, adding that the notion of an international consensus is "a goal rather than a reality."
Haass also said that Obama, having warned of dire consequences if chemical weapons were used in Syria, would damage U.S. credibility if he failed to follow through on that threat.
Other experts likewise expressed concern about allowing such a blatant violation of international law to go unpunished. Airstrikes against Syria would carry risks, "but the chemical attack is a dangerous escalation that cannot be ignored," Philip J. Crowley, a former State Department official now at a George Washington University think tank, said via Twitter.
Russia remains resistant to any foreign intervention, and fellow Security Council permanent member China has also refused to back previous world body attempts to sanction Syria. But the gathering movement for punishing Assad has wider support this time than when Washington bucked U.N. inaction over Kosovo in 1999. Turkey, which played no significant role in the NATO-led Kosovo airstrikes despite being a member of the military alliance, has suffered serious spillover effects from the Syrian war and has said it will back any strike against the Assad government. Jordan, Iraq and Gulf Arab states also appear willing to support the punitive action.
German officials have suggested for the first time that they will back the use of force against Syria if it is proved that Assad's loyalists used chemical weapons.
"The suspected large-scale use of poison gas breaks a taboo even in this Syrian conflict that has been so full of cruelty," said Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It's a serious breach of the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which categorically bans the use of these weapons. It must be punished. It cannot remain without consequences."
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
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