The images of an apparent chemical attack in Syria mean that the West's wait-and-see approach is simply no longer viable.
PARIS - The images from the many posted videos following Wednesday’s large-scale massacre from a toxic gas attack in Syria show corpses lined up, children suffocating in agony, men with their mouths and eyes opened wide while their bodies are wracked by convulsions. There are no traces of bullet or mortar wounds. The number of victims remains uncertain, but according to the Syrian opposition, it may be higher than 1,300.
Everything indicates that a powerful chemical agent was responsible for the deaths of these victims. Several experts in chemical weaponry who have observed these images have concluded that such a substance may well have been used. They suspect sarin, which the Syrian regime possesses in large quantities.
This attack represents a dramatic escalation in the civil war raging in Syria. In June, France, followed by the United Kingdom and the United States, asserted that chemical weapons had been used, pointing the finger at the Damascus regime. There are strong suspicions once again about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Syria’s unswerving ally, Russia, denounces the claims as pure manipulation.
This version is clearly not echoed by West. But the reactions there amount to no more than a wait-and-see approach that insists on establishing facts — and leaving that duty to U.N. weapons inspectors who are in Syria. This is quite a challenge, since the ability of these investigators to travel freely in the country has been effectively quashed.
It is a tragic symbol that the chemical crime took place only a few kilometers from the location of the U.N. team, which had arrived two days earlier. Beyond the horror of these images, what just happened in Syria is a humiliation for the United Nations.
Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a sharp observer of the international scene. Over the last few months, he noticed the sluggishness of foreign reactions to the “isolated” and repeated chemical attacks carried out by his troops, which at that point had killed 150 people.
He deduced that an “escalation” would not be any more troublesome. The Syrian dictator is also taking advantage of the fact that the world is focused on the Egyptian crisis. He feels that the coast is clear, and he is backed by Moscow and Tehran.
Back in 2012, the United States and European countries, including France, had threatened to act decisively if chemical weapons were used. Almost a year to the day after Barack Obama warned against crossing the “red line,” these look today like empty words. Faced now with what could be likened to a “Syrian Halabja” — in reference to the last massacre in the Middle East, in Kurdistan in 1988 — voices of indignation will not suffice.