International

Syria sarin claims unlikely to spur US military action

Despite previous talk of 'red lines,' the US remains reluctant to enter a conflict with no clear endgame

By an Al Jazeera Correspondent

Syrian activists are offering horrific images of dead and dying children from near Damascus as proof of a chemical-weapons attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. But even if those claims from the alleged Wednesday attack were verified, observers believe they're unlikely to change the strategic calculus that has thus far restrained the U.S. from direct intervention in the conflict -- President Obama's previous warning that the use of chemical weapons were a game-changing "red line" notwithstanding.

The White House on Wednesday expressed "deep concern" over the reports while saying it had no "independent verification" of activist claims. "We are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Although the U.N. Security Council discussed the incident at an emergency session on Wednesday afternoon and sought urgent clarification of the alleged attack, Russian and Chinese objections prevented it from endorsing the proposal by the U.S. and other Council members that a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus be dispatched to investigate.

Video and photos posted online have shown the purported victims of chemical attacks, allegedly nerve gas and sarin, in three different locations outside of Damascus. Bodies of men, women and children with no visible injuries and shrouded in white sheets or blankets, were laid out on floors, sometimes labeled.

Syrian opposition groups were quick to accuse government forces of having unleashed a chemical-weapons attack they say killed more than 1,000 civilians. The Syrian government just as quickly issued denials and counter-accusations. The U.N. inspection team currently in Syria was granted entry to the country with a limited mandate to investigate other sites, and has not traveled to the location of the latest alleged attack to verify whether chemical weapons were used, and if so, by whom.

In June, the U.S. said it had conclusive evidence that Assad's forces had indeed used chemical weapons against opposition fighters, but that prompted only an announcement that Washington would begin arming rebel groups. Those groups say they have yet to receive the arms and ammunition they were expecting.

Despite the dramatic scale of Tuesday's alleged attacks, the fog of competing and inconclusive narratives weakens the likelihood of any significant U.S. intervention, say experts, giving cover for opponents of intervention in Washington, Europe and Russia.

"They've already said they have positive evidence of prior use; suspicion in a new case isn't crossing a red line," said Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Unless you get physical evidence that this kind of claim is real, you're not going to get an administration reaction -- unless it has some political reason to use it as an excuse."

Any such political will, if it existed, was dealt a further blow earlier this week when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen.  Martin Dempsey raised the bar against military involvement in Syria. In a letter to Congress, Dempsey wrote that U.S. intervention "would not be military decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict."

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, expects the administration's preference will be to try and pressure the U.N. to act.

"No one wants to do this alone," Landis says. "No one will take leadership."

Amnesty International, meanwhile, called on the Syrian government to allow the U.N. inspections team in Damascus to travel to the sites of Tuesday's alleged attacks to investigate, arguing that there was nothing to lose for the authorities if they were innocent. Thus far, the Syrian government has shown no inclination to grant such access.

"We really feel we are paralyzed," says Cilina Nasser, Syria researcher at Amnesty. "But our job is to keep the pressure on."

During the two-and-a-half years of bloodletting that the U.N. reports has claimed more than 100,000 lives, the Assad regime has grown accustomed to U.S. denunciations not being matched by action. Landis adds that the international community's muted reaction to Egypt has further emboldened Assad, who -- like Egypt's military -- cast his crackdown as a battle against violent extremism.

"They're not reacting in Egypt," he says. "So why would they really react here?"

For a resident in Damascus who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, the debates over Western intervention are as remote as is the truth behind the latest slew of casualties.

All she would confirm, Wednesday, was that she was "still alive, today."

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