Over the next few days or weeks, the suspicion that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces unleashed toxic chemicals may harden into evidence of a war crime. If so, that would — should — change the world’s calculation about how to help rebels overthrow Assad.
We know this much already:
The United Nations won’t be much help, despite a raft of resolutions frowning on chemical weapons. Russia, Assad’s chief enabler, blocked a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the attack. All the Security Council could manage was a call for a “thorough, impartial and prompt investigation.” Advantage, Assad.
Assad can defuse this crisis and prove that his government didn’t launch these attacks if he provides full access to the attack sites for U.N. weapons inspectors to gather evidence. Anything short of granting immediate access will suggest to the world that he’s guilty as charged. Let’s see what the dictator permits.
In any Middle East crisis, all eyes swivel toward the U.S. But gassing civilians is a war crime. It’s not just an affront to the U.S., but to humanity across the globe. So the reaction should come not only from Washington.
The world approaches a moment of decision. If the Syrian government launched this chemical attack, will it be held accountable, not just by the U.S. but by countries in the Arab world and elsewhere? Will France, Turkey and other countries outraged by the attack muster the sand to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, along the lines of the NATO coalition that helped topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011?
Or will world leaders shrug, await Assad’s next outrage, and debate the meaning of “red line”?