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U.S. and Syria Trade Places on Chemical Weapons Inspections

It wasn’t long ago that the Obama administration was championing the cause of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria. And it wasn’t long ago that Syria was resisting every effort by the weapons inspectors to gain access to their territory. But the tables turned Wednesday, as Washington dismissed the work of the inspectors as largely ...

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

It wasn’t long ago that the Obama administration was championing the cause of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria. And it wasn’t long ago that Syria was resisting every effort by the weapons inspectors to gain access to their territory.

But the tables turned Wednesday, as Washington dismissed the work of the inspectors as largely pointless, and Syria appealed to the United Nations to expand the chemical weapons teams mandate and to keep them in the country beyond the Sunday deadline. The change in tone has caused some friction between Washington and its closest friends in London. The Americans have concluded that the inspections can’t tell U.S. policy makers anything they don’t already know; The British, on the other hand, would like to give the inspectors a chance to present their case. 

The American and Syrian reversal comes as the United States and its closest European allies, Britain and France, are putting plans in place for a limited military strike against Syria in response to its role in an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Al Ghouta suburbs of Damascus that left anywhere from 355 to more than 1,800 dead.

In anticipation of military action, Britain shared a draft resolution with the Security Council’s key powers — China, France, Russia, and the United States — that would condemn Syria for its purported role in the attack and authorize the use of force against Syria. The draft, Prime Minister David Cameron, tweeted, condemns "the chemical weapons attack by Assad" and authorizes "necessary measures to protect civilians," diplomatic short hand for the use of military force. But the British also appeared to be playing for time. British Foreign Minister William Hague said that his government anticipated further discussion of its initiative with Security Council members over the "coming days." 

"By far the best thing would be if the United Nations could be united, unlikely as that seems in the face of the vetoes from Russia and China that we’ve had in the past," he added. "But we have to try to do that. We’re clear that if there isn’t agreement at the United Nations then we and other nations still have a responsibility on chemical weapons."

The British parliament, meanwhile, is set to debate a motion tomorrow that would require the U.N. to report to the Security Council the findings of the chemical weapons team before military action could be taken. "A United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action," the motion states.

In Washington, American policy makers seemed to be running out of patience. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier this week that the U.S. military is ready to strike once it receives an order from the president. The State Department, meanwhile, sought to maintain a sense of urgency over the prospects of military action, saying that the diplomatic process underway in New York was doomed to failure. China and Russia are all but certain to veto the resolution if it is put to a vote, leaving it to the United States and its allies to mount a military strike without the Security Council’s approval. "We see no avenue forward, given continued Russian opposition to any meaningful council action on Syria," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. "We cannot be held up in responding by Russia’s continued intransigence at the United Nations."

The American push comes as the administration is facing questions about the legality of American military action, in the absence of a U.N. Security Council endorsement. "I think that international law is clear on this," said Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. Arab League special envoy for Syria. "International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council." 

"I must say that I do know that President Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger happy," he added. "What they will decide I don’t know. But certainly international law is very clear, the Security Council has to be brought in."

For now, Russia and China’s envoys appeared to be playing for time, agreeing to participate in preliminary discussions over the text. They promised they would pass the measure on to their capitals for comment.

The initial closed talks, however, bogged down amidst a dispute over whether it was appropriate to condemn the Syrian government when the U.N. inspectors hadn’t even concluded their investigation. "To discuss some kind of Security Council resolution before the U.N. inspectors working in Syria have presented their report would be at the least premature," Russia’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Russia’s allies from Damascus played a similar game. Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar al Jafaari formally asked the United Nations to keep a team of weapons inspectors in Damascus beyond their Sunday deadline to probe a series of alleged new allegations that Syrian rebels attacked Assad’s forces with chemical weapons.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Syrian government claimed that Syrian rebels attacked Syrian forces with chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus on August 22, 23, and 25, according to Jafaari. The Syrian diplomat claimed the agent used in the attack as "close to what we call the nerve gas sarin."

The letter, Jafaari told reporters, contains a request by the Syrian government to "immediately" instruct the team to "investigate three heinous incidents that took place in the countryside of Damascus." He added that "members of the Syrian army inhaled poisonous gas as a result of use by the terrorist armed groups of chemical agents." Jafaari said that dozens of Syrian soldiers are currently being treated in local hospitals for exposure to chemical agent.

The United Nations has not responded yet to the request. But the Syrian appeal — which came less than a day after the U.N. chief said that the chemical weapons team "needs time to do its job" — has the potential to delay Western plans for a military strike. "It is essential to establish the facts," Ban said late Tuesday. "A United Nations investigation team is now on the ground to do just that. Just days after the attacks, they have collected valuable samples and interviewed victims and witnesses. The team needs time to do its job."

"The military logic has given us a country on the verge of total destruction, a region in chaos and a global threat," he added. "Why add more fuel to the fire?"

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Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch