U.N. inspectors in Syria: too little, too late?

Sharif Nashashibi
Sharif Nashashibi
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I rarely trust or agree with U.S. statements, actions and motives in the Arab world. However, a senior American official was absolutely right to dismiss on Sunday the Syrian regime’s acceptance of U.N. inspectors visiting the site of last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack. It is “too late to be credible,” he said.

After all, Damascus’s approval came a whole five days after the massacre. What took it so long? I have not come across a convincing answer to this obvious question. “If, as they claimed, the Syrian regime has nothing to hide, it should have allowed immediate and unimpeded access to the site rather than continuing to attack the affected area to block access and destroy evidence,” said the U.S. State Department. Again, spot on.

This is certainly not the first time that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has denied atrocities yet blocked access to them. It has finally allowed U.N. inspectors already in the country to visit the site of last week’s attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which they will do on Monday.

However, that may not be a climb-down for the regime if the terms of the visit are part of the wider mandate regarding previous allegations, which is to only establish whether chemical weapons have been used, not who has used them. This was not mentioned in relevant news reports at the time of writing.

Damascus would not have given its blessing to the mission at all had this condition not been accepted by the United Nations, rendering it totally pointless. This challenges the argument by Assad apologists that he would not have carried out such an attack under inspectors’ noses.

This is the same person who claimed that “we don’t kill our people. No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.” Given the indisputable fact that his regime has killed thousands upon thousands of civilians, this statement is proof of Assad’s insanity, not his innocence.

If it was indeed the opposition that perpetrated this and previous alleged chemical attacks, the regime would be crying out for U.N. inspectors to explicitly apportion blame. As things stand, however, it may not be risking much by letting them in. Its decision to do so had nothing to do with the regime having clean hands.

It was down to three things: not being able to withstand the mounting international pressure to allow such access, even from Assad’s stalwart ally Russia; waiting as long as possible to make evidence-gathering more difficult; and concern about louder calls for, and threats of, force against the regime.

Damascus may have finally realized that it has over-reached.

Sharif Nashashibi

U.S. President Barack Obama, facing increasing domestic and regional criticism of his inaction regarding Syria, received a “detailed review of a range of potential options” from his top advisers on Saturday on how Washington and its allies could respond to the alleged chemical weapons attack.

He has also agreed to consult with British Prime Minister David Cameron about “potential responses.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has expanded its presence in the Mediterranean, and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke of a potential positioning of forces ahead of possible military action.

France, too, has called for a “reaction with force,” and Syria’s neighbour and regional powerhouse Turkey has urged the international community to “intervene as soon as possible” and “act decisively.” All this may be posturing, but Assad can no longer ignore these developments, as he has managed to do throughout the uprising against him.

Despite political, financial and military support from Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah, and Tehran’s threat on Sunday of “harsh consequences” if the United States intervened, Assad may have calculated - wisely, for once - that none of his allies would, or could, face the world’s only superpower, and its Western and Middle Eastern allies, head on. Damascus may have finally realized that it has over-reached.

Opposition reaction

The regime’s handling of the Ghouta incident has been farcical from the start. It first claimed that the whole thing was “fabricated,” despite a plethora of independent experts saying the scale and detail of the footage would make that almost impossible. Then it blamed rebels for carrying out this supposedly made-up event.

Contrast this with the opposition, which straight away pleaded for U.N. inspectors, saying it was “critical” that they arrive “within 48 hours” of the attack to be able to properly gather fresh evidence.

It also guaranteed their safety in rebel-held areas, including Ghouta, and said it had smuggled samples from victims for testing by experts outside Syria. These are hardly the actions of a guilty party, not to mention the absurdity of rebels chemically attacking their own territory.

If I rarely see to eye to eye with Washington regarding the Arab world, I never agree with Iranian policy vis-a-vis the Syrian conflict... until Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s statement on Sunday that “the international community must show a serious reaction to the use of chemical weapons by the terrorists in Syria and condemn this move.”

He and I just disagree on who the terrorists are in this case. I doubt U.N. inspectors will shed conclusive light on this, given their ridiculously limited mandate, and the Assad regime’s stark duplicity thus far. In any case, its behaviour belies its claims to innocence.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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