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Staking Out Ground on Syria

Shoshana Bryen

In a formal statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons… has the capacity to do this with rockets… has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place. And with our own eyes, we have all of us become witnesses.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice wrote on her Twitter account, “Only regime has capacity to launch CW (chemical weapons) with rockets.”

In anticipation of an American or allied strike in Syria, both opponents and supporters of the Assad regime have begun to formalize their own positions.  Russia and Iran strongly disapproved of any potential American military action, but were careful not to suggest they themselves would retaliate for a presumed Western strike.  They also condemned any potential “invasion” of Syria or “declaration of war” – which goes well beyond any proposed American response.

Russia reiterated its support for the Assad regime and suggested the attacks were opposition “provocation.”  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “There were absolutely no political or military reasons for the Syrian government to resort to using chemical weapons, when experts were working there, when, in general, the military situation favored the government, and when American-Russian meetings were to be held shortly in preparation for the Geneva conference.”

While saying an invasion of Syria would be a “flagrant violation” of international law, Lavrov added, “We do not intend to fight with anyone. We continue to expect that our Western partners will apply their policies strategically and not reactively.”

Mohammad Esmayeeli of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, however, suggested otherwise. “If [it] starts a war with Syria, the U.S. will not achieve its desirable and needed results… Russia will likely stand up to these threats.”  While careful not to threaten direct Iranian action, the Parliament’s Director General for International Affairs, Hossein Sheikholeslam, told the FARS news agency, “If such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria,” noting that the Syrian army is “highly capable of defending itself” and could “raze parts of Israel.”

The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, accused the West of jumping too quickly to conclusion.

U.S. allies were still unwilling to say definitively that the Syrian government had, indeed, used chemical weapons, but that under certain circumstances retaliation would be appropriate.

British Foreign Minister William Hague said Britain faced a choice between a military strike and inaction. “This may be the choice. This is why we have called for a strong response,” he said.  Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to call a meeting of his National Security Council, and the British Parliament has been called into session for Thursday. Cameron said the world could “not stand idly by” in the face of the “massive use” of banned weapons, but any military action would have to be “proportionate and legal.”

French President Francois Hollande and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle agreed. “We will also leave a little time for the diplomatic process, but not too much time,” said Hollande. “We cannot not react to the use of chemical weapons.” Westerwelle said Germany would consider any use of chemical weapons in Syria a “crime against civilization.  If such a use were confirmed, the global community must act. Germany would be among those who consider it right that there be consequences.”

The Israeli government has been careful not to take sides in the Syrian war, limiting its own “red lines” to certain weapon systems that it has said will not be permitted to be in the hands of certain of its enemies.  An official statement from the Israeli Embassy in May read, “Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Regarding the current situation, Prime Minister Netanyahu said only, “”In recent days we have been reminded of what kind of neighborhood we live in. We’ve seen the Syrian army slaughter its own people, we’ve seen other bloody events in our region. Various leaders have no moral obstacles to killing either their neighbors or their own people.”

As for Syria’s Bashar Assad himself, The Times of Israel carried an Israeli Channel 2 news report that senior members of the regime were fleeing.  “The families of some of the heads of the regime” were flying out of Latakia Airport in the west of the country. There was no confirmation.