Reports of a massive chemical-weapons attack in a Damascus suburb Wednesday not only escalated the humanitarian tragedy in Syria but also threatened to scuttle President Obama’s hopes of pushing the Syrian opposition into political negotiations with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Assad regime had not agreed to grant U.N. investigators access to the site in the city of Ghouta, where Syrian rebels say more than 1,000 civilians are dead after a gas attack widely suspected to be the largest use of chemical weapons since the 2 1/2-year Syrian civil war began. The investigators, who are less than a 30-minute drive from the site, are inside Syria to investigate previous uses of chemical weapons in March that the U.S. intelligence community concluded were perpetrated by the Syrian military against its own people.
Several countries have sent letters to the U.N. Security Council to urge it to call on the Assad regime to grant the investigators access to the site. The Security Council met in emergency session Wednesday afternoon to discuss an international response.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Syrian opposition told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that in light of the attack, a second conference in Geneva to negotiate directly with the Assad regime with U.S. and Russian mediation, the key pillar of Secretary of State John Kerry’s approach, is now significantly less likely.
“Today was a clear sign that this regime is not serious in finding a solution to the violence that it is responsible for,” said Khalid Saleh, official spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition.
Kerry is continuing to press the opposition to go through with the Geneva conference and pushed the issue during his late July meeting in New York with opposition leader Ahmad al-Jabra. In May the secretary of state and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the Geneva 2 conference, to be held in mid-June. After several delays, it is now tentatively scheduled for mid-October.
Privately, Kerry and other administration officials are telling the opposition they realize a new Geneva conference is likely to fail, but they want the opposition to go through with it, as the U.S. has already committed and the administration sees it as a necessary step before contemplating more serious action in Syria.
The opposition refuses to engage in negotiations unless they are based on the agreement that Assad cannot be part of any transitional government in Syria. The argument that the opposition should participate in peace negotiations just so they can fail is not convincing, said Saleh.
“Unofficially, [American officials] say, ‘You sit down at the table and you say you need Assad to go and they say no, and then the negotiations fail and we move on to the stage,’” said Saleh. “It is difficult to explain to the fathers of the dead children that we need to do this as a political maneuver.”
Throughout the day Wednesday, opposition leaders were collecting information from the ground in Ghouta. By mid-afternoon Washington time, the death toll was more than 1,300 and injuries ranged between 3,000 and 5,000, Saleh said. Which chemical weapons were used is unclear, he said, but doctors on scene were having some success treating patients with atropine, used to combat the effects of nerve gas, until supplies of the medicine ran out.
The regime denies responsibility for the attack but has yet to allow the U.N. investigators access to the attack zone. Saleh said a regime battalion was in position outside Ghouta and residents were bracing for a possible ground assault. Some Free Syrian Army units were targeted in the attack, he said.
For the opposition, the attack is the latest and clearest sign that the Assad regime is flaunting Obama’s red line. The international community, especially the U.S., has failed to deter the Syrian regime from mass murder, the rebels say. When chemical-weapons attacks began in Syrian last December, opposition leaders and experts warned that if there was no firm response, Assad would feel emboldened and escalate. Now, said Saleh, their worst fears may be realized.
“The Assad regime has taken Obama’s red line and tossed it into the orbit,” he said. “We were thinking the first chemical-weapons use would cause a reaction from the U.S., but unfortunately we did not see that. It gave the regime a green light that the international community will not respond to the use of chemical weapons.”
The Obama administration announced in May it would provide unspecified increased military assistance to the Free Syrian Army as a response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons, but little to no new U.S. military assistance has arrived.
“Neither the U.S. nor the allies of the Assad regime has the resolve to do what it takes to stop the regime from killing its people,” said Saleh. “If the international community does not act, you can expect more chemical-weapons attacks on a mass scale.”
At Wednesday’s White House press briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest emphasized that the U.S. was waiting for the Assad regime to allow the investigators access to the site.
“Now the Assad regime, when presented with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in their country, has said that they are interested in a credible investigation to get to the bottom of what exactly has happened,” he said. “Well, it’s time for them to live up to that claim.”
But Earnest refused repeatedly to specify what action the U.S. is prepared to take if the latest chemical-weapons attack is attributed to the regime.
“So there are a range of consequences for the actions that have possibly taken place,” he said. “How this is going to affect our policy as it relates to the Assad regime, we’ll continue to involve our consultations with our international partners. We are providing some assistance to the opposition and even to the Syrian Military Council.”
Meanwhile, the State Department is pushing forward with the planning of the Geneva conference, setting up high-level meetings with the Russians next week to go over planning.
“[Secretary Kerry] and Foreign Minister Lavrov have spoken repeatedly and regularly about their shared commitment to Geneva,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “We know we have differences of opinion on some issues around Syria, but both the United States and Russia can play a vital role in convening both sides. We’re continuing to work on that. That has not changed.”
For Syria experts who have been following the administration’s policy, the White House’s reaction and the administration’s insistence on pushing for negotiations is illustrative of how U.S. policy on the Syrian crisis is out of sync with its stated goal of removing Assad from power.
“Diplomacy will be important to ending this crisis, but it’s clear that such a process is unlikely to work at this time, as both sides do not see a need to negotiate,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Our approach to Syria is failing because it’s unrealistic. And America is losing influence because of a gap between its stated policy objectives and the reticence to do more to achieve them.”