According to this morning’s newspapers, the US and UK are finalising plans for a military strike on Syria. The attack is a response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime last Wednesday. According to medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres, three hospitals it supports in Damascus have treated about 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” consistent with a chemical attack. At least 355 of those patients have died. The regime and the opposition both blame each other. The UN inspection is still ongoing, but the US has said there is “little doubt” that the Syrian regime was to blame. In the strongest language yet, US secretary of state John Kerry described the attack as a “moral outrage”. In the UK, parliament has been called back early from recess to debate action, as has the US Congress.
The exact form that military action will take is unclear, but given the heavy rhetoric from both US and UK leaders, it is difficult to imagine that no action at all will be taken. Analysts believe the most likely US action is sea-launched cruise missiles targeting Syrian military operations. Washington recently bolstered its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
The plans have caused controversy, with staunch opposition from some senior politicians in both the US and the UK. Many have warned against a repeat of the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Leaders have stressed that any potential action in Syria will be a response to a violation of international law – the deployment of chemical weapons – rather than an attempt at regime change. The Arab League has thrown its weight behind the allies’ judgement that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack.
Of course, not all international powers support the prospect of punitive military strikes against Syria. Throughout the two-year civil war, Russia and China have supported the regime. As the west ups its rhetoric in preparation for military action, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich invoked the memory of Iraq and Libya to urge “prudence”. In a statement, he said: “Attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa.”
The country’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov said that there is no evidence the regime was responsible for the chemical attack. He was responding to the suggestion that western action could be taken without UN approval, which he said would be “a very grave violation of international law”. The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, has also said that western powers are rushing to conclusions about who is responsible for using the weapons, before UN inspectors have finished their investigation. As with previous interventions in the Middle East, this leaves the UN Security Council divided. Russia and China oppose military intervention while the UK and France have warned that the UN could be bypassed if there was “great humanitarian need”.
Certainly, communication between Russia and the western powers appears to be deteriorating. On Monday, the US said it was delaying a meeting with Russian diplomats, aimed at furthering a political solution, due to “ongoing consultations” about the chemical attack. Russia said it was “disappointed” with the decision, saying that working out a diplomatic solution would be particularly useful with the threat of international intervention hanging over the country.
Thus far, international attempts at finding a solution have been fruitless. The US, UK, France, and other western powers, believe that no political situation can be found unless Assad steps aside. Russia, China, and Iran all stand by Assad, leading to a stalemate situation for international negotiations.
As military plans are finalised, tension between the members of the UN Security Council is running high. Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, said on Twitter: “The west behaves towards the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade.” Yet for all the angry words and warnings, will this make any difference in practice? The Kremlin has said that it will not intervene militarily in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia has begun to evacuate its citizens from Syria in anticipation of the expected western military strike. David Cameron had a 20 minute phone call with Vladmir Putin on Monday. The Russian president reportedly urged the British prime minister to wait for the findings of the UN investigation, but did not repeat Lavrov’s claim that unilateral action would be illegal.
Russia has objected to most of the west’s recent Middle East incursions. The foreign policy aims of the countries in the UN Security Council are rarely in tune with each other. This makes it difficult to pressure for diplomatic solutions to international conflicts, as well as making it difficult to agree on military intervention. However, just as Russia protestations failed to prevent western military action in Libya and Iraq, it seems unlikely it will have much impact on plans for Syria.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.