There seems little doubt that a significant chemical attack of some description took place in Syria yesterday. The Assad regime denies responsibility and says it was staged. Russia appears to support this contention; but CBRN experts say the video footage of the aftermath looks to be genuine.
Those who argue that the Assad regime could not have launched such an attack cite two reasons. The first is that it would cross President Obama’s ‘red line’, the second is that the timing would be extraordinary given that a 20-member UN team has just arrived in Syria to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons.
But other calculations may well have emboldened Assad. These include continuing Russian support in the UN Security Council (which was effective yesterday evening in blocking an immediate demand for a full investigation); the chaos in Egypt (which is making a reluctant US even more reluctant to intervene militarily in the Middle East); and, perhaps above all, developments in Iran.
Despite all the manifold dangers in the Middle East, the Iranian nuclear project remains the most dangerous, and as Iran has just elected a supposedly moderate president, Hassan Rowhani, the US and the West are desperate to give negotiations one last try to head off Israeli military action. But a Western attack on Syria would seem certain to foreclose on any slight hopes there may be of negotiating away Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran’s new American-savvy foreign minister, Javad Zarif, came as close as he could to saying this yesterday. Speaking after yesterday’s Iranian cabinet meeting, he said: "Ms Ashton [the EU's foreign policy chief] expressed a desire to start the nuclear negotiations and we stressed that reaching a solution is not difficult." He said the "solution" lies in the other parties "acknowledging the rights of Iranian people" and Iran giving assurances that "the nuclear program is solely peaceful".
But he also said: “Any kind of foreign intervention in Syria would only lead to fratricide and bloodshed and increase concerns over sectarianism and extremism in the entire region. Resolving the Syrian issue requires decision-making on wider views [our emphasis added]. ”
The threat was hardly hidden: intervene in Syria and there will be repercussions throughout the region, including no doubt in Egypt, where Iran is moving fast to form an alliance with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, but also over the nuclear question where, according to Zarif, “reaching a solution is not difficult”.
France is urging Western military action (from the air, not on the ground), and both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are incandescent over the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s position is more nuanced. It is no fan of the Syrian opposition and would not want to see the establishment of a government in Damascus that is beholden to the increasingly anti-Israel Turkish government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On the other hand, allowing Assad to get away with the use of chemical weapons would represent a catastrophic failure of Western policy, and most importantly Israel would have no concerns about any action that scuppered nuclear talks with Iran. It does not believe in them. America, however, is desperate to give nuclear negotiations one last chance under the new Iranian president.
Iran’s military high command is of the view that Assad is on the verge of winning the civil war. If he has committed this barbarism and gets away with it, that assessment will look even stronger. But a victorious Assad would re-establish the Shia crescent that so worries the Gulf monarchies, including most particularly Saudi Arabia.
The complications are truly immense, and the one thing that is certain in all of this is that the lights will be burning late in Western chancelleries.