Former UN weapons inspector: West has 'no authority' in Syria

Any action in Syria must be backed up with 'hard evidence,' says Ambassador Richard Butler

Butler said military action should only happen if the Security Council agrees to it.

Amb. Richard Butler, an Australian national and expert in nuclear disarmament, was the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s. He also served as deputy representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), chairman of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission to Disarm Iraq (UNSCOM).

Butler spoke with Al Jazeera about the suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week that left hundreds dead. Both the Syrian opposition and President Bashar al-Assad have denied responsibility for the attack, which crossed what President Barack Obama has called a "red line" that would necessitate a direct response from the U.S. The U.N. on Monday sent its weapons inspectors to examine the site of the alleged attack in Damascus, about which Butler is uniquely qualified to comment.

These interview highlights were edited for length.

Butler on whether U.N. weapons inspectors will be able to produce a comprehensive report on the suspected chemical weapons attack in Damascus:

"It will be difficult, because they were kept away from the site for five days. … And the chemicals involved degrade fairly rapidly … although they leave traces of having been there … but those five days make it difficult. 

"Secondly, they would best have tissue samples … and the reports are Syrian authorities would not let them exhume bodies. … They were only allowed to take away limited quantities of blood and urine, so I’m a little bit pessimistic about the possibility the U.N. team will be able to bring back as detailed and as exclusive a report as we would have hoped.

"I know the leader of the team very well, and we worked together in the past. The inspectors who were there in Iraq with me were men and women of extraordinary ability and integrity … but no matter how good they are, they need proper access in a timely fashion, and I think they have been denied of that, so I am not terribly optimistic that the report will be as comprehensive as we would like it to be."

On determining responsibility for the alleged chemical attacks:

 "The first question that needs to be answered is whether those pictures and the numbers of those dead and injured, as presented by Doctors Without Borders and other groups, were those numbers as a result of the use of chemical weapons?

"There seems to be a widespread consensus available now even before the U.N. reports come back. The pictures seem very clear that chemical weapons do certainly appeared to have been used.

"But the second question … is that of provenance. Where do they come from, and who authorized or directed they be used? And in my mind now, that now has become the crucial question in determining what action should be taken, if the global norm against any use of chemical weapons has been violated, which appears that it has. Who violated it, and who is responsible? And already we hear widespread arguments developing.

"Just a few moments before coming here, V.P. of the U.S. Joe Biden said he is completely satisfied that this was directed by the Assad government. … I respect him, and he may well be satisfied, but I want to make this point to you. … Him being completely satisfied is not the same as the evidence being made available to the world public.

"If it is the case that the evidence exists, (then) the U.S. and all people who are interested in this terrible problem need to have it demonstrated, not just stated, but demonstrated, that it is beyond doubt, incontrovertible that this was directed by the Syrian regime. And if that proves to be the case, then the whole issue of what action to be taken gets to be a whole lot clearer."

On if action should be taken: 

"Let's say it's clear that chemical weapons were used. I am prepared to say that. It has all the appearance of that … and it would be best to verify that with a lot more hard evidence, but let's say that's a given. What we don't know is who directed that action, and that is crucial in determining what "punishment," as Joe Biden called it. The French minister has been saying there must be a consequence, a price to be paid for having done this. 

"In principle, I agree with that, because the norm of the non-use of chemical weapons is so precious, but we must be sure we are punishing the right person, and I am taking the purely intellectual or perhaps political point that it's in everyone's interest that the identification of that person or that authority of the person who is responsible and not on the basis of gut feeling … we need hard evidence to show the world proof. Once that is done, the picture will look very different indeed. …

"The truth is, we in the West have no authority within Syria. The president of the United States has said today, he is not interested in and not contemplating regime change within Syria, and God bless him for that, because that in my opinion is the correct policy. …

"The (U.N.) Security Council is the framework of international law, and an incredibly important piece of that international law is the chemical weapons convention. And the charter of the U.N. and the chemical weapons convention both make it incredibly clear that the only authentic way in which military action could be taken to rectify a wrong is if the Security Council agrees to it, and we will never get that agreement … unless instead of claiming what we think to be the case, we can prove to the Council with fact that it is the case, that the Assad regime authorized this.

"And then the possibility of concerted international action with the correct authority, the authority of the Security Council and international law, it will put us in a very different situation from the very worrying one where a small group of countries might think that they can enforce the law."

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