Syria crisis triggers diplomacy

John Kerry meets Vladimir Putin to talk political solutions, while it's unclear "red line" for intervention crossed

By Natasha Lennard

Published May 7, 2013 12:45PM (EDT)

Syria's bloody civil war shows no sign of abating, but following two Israeli airstrikes late last week near Damascus aimed at Syrian weapons stockpiles, already fraught questions of international intervention have gained even greater weight and urgency as Assad's regime has called Israeli actions "an act of war." Israel, meanwhile, stressed on Monday that the attacks were not aimed at Syria's beleaguered regime, but were intended solely to stop Iranian-supplied weapons reaching Hezbollah (even though the strikes reportedly killed 15 members of Assad's elite Republican guard). The geopolitical fallout is complicated.

U.S. and Russia meet in an attempt at framing a political solution:

As a senior State Department official noted Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir with discussions about Syria topping the agenda. State Department officials reiterated that both Russia and the U.S. hoped to look at  "what’s going on on the humanitarian assistance side and what more the international community, working together, can do." Kerry's talks have thus been framed as an attempt at cobbling together a political, non-military international solution.

U.S. defends Israel's actions, but intervention is not entailed:

A chorus of international voices have condemned Israel's airstrikes. Even two of Syria's regional enemies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have decried the attacks. "No excuse can justify this operation," said Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan. Meanwhile, President Obama has unsurprisingly defended Israel's actions, stating “What I have said in the past and … I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably ... have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.”

As the Daily Beast's Ali Gharib noted, the attacks were certainly "bearish." Glenn Greenwald went further, noting that the Israeli argument -- that the strikes were justified as they stopped Iranian-supplied weapons reaching Hezbollah -- was unacceptable as an international standard. "Is that really a 'principle' that anyone would apply consistently, as opposed to a typically concocted ad hoc claim to justify whatever the U.S. and Israel do?" Greenwald wrote, noting:

Let's apply this 'principle' to other cases... if Syria this week attacks a U.S. military base on U.S. soil and incidentally kills some American civilians... and then cites as justification the fact that the U.S. has been aiding Syrian rebels, would any establishment U.S. journalist or political official argue that this was remotely justified? Or what if Syria bombed Qatar or Saudi Arabia on the same ground: would any U.S. national figure defend the bombing as well within Syria's rights given those nations' arming of its rebels?

Gharib rightly pointed out, however, that regardless of the justifiability or lack thereof of the Israeli strikes, they certainly should be taken as no prompt for U.S. military intervention:

The Israeli attacks... don't speak directly to U.S. involvement. Israel is acting on its own imperatives: the national security objective of keeping advanced weapons systems out of Hezbollah's hands and, as reported by the New York Times, to send a message to Iran. Neither of these sync exactly with the top stated goals of American intervention advocates. The absence of an Israeli focus on the humanitarian intervention became clear when a Netanyahu aide told Israeli radio that the strikes were "only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime." And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even reportedly reached out via backchannels to the Syrian government to reassure it that Israel wasn't seeking to destabilize the regime. That hardly resembles the U.S. tack, where advocates of increased U.S. action are explicit about humanitarian aims and trying to topple Bashar Assad's government and even Obama, who's avoided robust military engagement in Syria, has called for Assad to step down.

Whether a vigorous Syrian response to Israel will, however, push the U.S.'s hand further towards military intervention is another question. As the Guardian noted, "Syria continues to ratchet up its rhetoric [against Israel] following the attack. State media quoted prime minister Wael al-Halki as saying: 'Syria would not forgive us all if we hesitated in defending it.'"

The extent of retaliation at present has been mortar bombs lobbed at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (an area into which the Syrian civil war has over-spilled for some months anyway.) But reports the AP, Assad's regime has given Palestine the go-ahead to attack Israel. “Syria has given the green light to set up missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets,” Anwar Raja of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command told the AP.

The possibility of the U.S. providing arms to select rebels has also gained some greater traction, as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced a bill that would see the U.S. providing weapons to groups who had been vetted on issues of human rights, terrorism and arms proliferation.

Chemical weapons claims challenged

Both the U.S. and the U.N. have challenged recent claims that rebel groups might have used the nerve agent sarin, the Guardian noted. "We are highly sceptical of any suggestions that the opposition used chemical weapons," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "We think it highly likely that Assad regime was responsible but we have to be sure about the facts before we make any decisions about a response." Carney was responding to claims made by Carla del Ponte, a member of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria and a former war crimes prosecutor, who told Swiss television on Sunday that “according to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas.”

Meanwhile experts in Britain, France and Israel have also cast doubt on whether Assad's regime has even  used chemical weapons and thus crossed Obama's "red line" for military intervention. Via McClatchy:

Existing evidence casts more doubt on claims of chemical weapons use than it does to help build a case that one or both sides of the conflict have employed them.

British officials now say they're uncertain how the few samples they’ve analyzed were gathered, handled and preserved.

The British defense secretary, Philip Hammond, told reporters in Washington last week that while that evidence led experts to suspect the use of sarin, a potent nerve gas, the samples were too degraded to be considered conclusive.

“We need hard evidence. The kind of evidence that would be admissible in court,” he told a briefing of defense reporters at the British Embassy. “For that evidence to have any chance of being admitted in court, it would need to have been collected under controlled conditions, secured through a documented chain of custody to the point where it was tested. We do not yet have samples that meet that standard of evidence.”

Turkish doctors over the weekend also cast doubt on another reported chemical attack, this one in the Syrian city of Saraqib, where rebels claimed some sort of chemical weapon had been dropped from helicopters.

Carney agreed that "the facts are not complete." As such, whether the "red line" has been crossed remains -- like so much of the situation in Syria -- uncertain.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Bashar Al-assad Chemical Weapons Hezbollah Israel John Kerry Middle East Russia Syria