In Syria, The Time To Act Is Now

The images of an apparent chemical attack in Syria mean that the West's wait-and-see approach is simply no longer viable.

Protest in Amman against alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria
Protest in Amman against alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria


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.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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