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US-Russia standoff on Syria

UNSC should set up a mechanism to establish responsibility for the gas attack.

US-Russia standoff on Syria
The US air strikes on Syria on Friday following the chemical attack on a small town in Idlib, one of the last strongholds of rebels fighting the Bashar Al Assad regime, have ratcheted up tension between the US and Russia to a combustible level. The attack has made one of the most vicious wars in recent years even more volatile.

Gruesome pictures of children gasping for breath in the last moments of their life, of people convulsing or dead in the town of Khan Sheikhun in the rebel-held area last Tuesday, have caused much uproar and shock worldwide. Rescue workers hosing down the limp bodies of young children, trying to wash away chemicals, people wailing and pounding on the chest of victims in desperate attempts to revive them are some of the heart-wrenching scenes of the tragic event.

The deadly incident has been blamed on the Syrian air force but denied by the Russian, on behalf of Bashar Assad was attributed to a weapons depot held by the rebels. However, the rebels have denied having the capability of producing the deadly gas, most likely Sarin.

Nearly 70 people were killed in this worst attack in decades that bears all the hallmarks of the Bashar Al Assad regime's previous activities. It has caused global outrage and calls for international action. Assad's forces have used gas in the past and were recently using chlorine gas on the rebel-held eastern Aleppo throughout its long siege.

The launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the USS Porter and USS Ross on Friday at Sharyat airbase, supposedly used for the chemical attack, angered Moscow which suspended the communication system under which the US and Russia exchange information on operations to avoid inadvertent clashes between their respective forces in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denounced the air strikes, as an "illegal act of aggression" also ordered the frigate, Admiral Grigorovitch, armed with cruise missiles, to move from the Black Sea to the Syrian port of Tartus and for a fresh batch of the S-400 and S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which are already stationed in Syria in large numbers, to be sent to protect Russian and regime forces.

The Kremlin accused US President Donald Trump of abandoning his election campaign pledge to form a common front in Syria against terrorism. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: "Instead of the previously touted idea of a joint fight against the main enemy – Islamic State – the Trump administration has shown that it will carry out a fierce battle against the lawful government of Syria". Medvedev warned that the US strike came "within an inch" of sparking military clashes with his country's forces, stationed in the region.

The developments came on a day when the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, said America was "prepared to do more if necessary" and would not stand by while chemical weapons were used. The Pentagon said it was investigating whether Russia took part in the chemical attack.

The Russians did not activate their anti-aircraft missiles during the Idlib air strikes, but Moscow's angry stance is seen as sending a message that further assaults on its Syrian allies may not be treated with such forbearance. Observers are of the view that Putin who has built a reputation of a tough leader who stands by his friends, cannot maintain that reputation if he allows repeated American air strikes on Assad's forces. Trump administration, they say, needs to be careful about that. Amid continued accusations and recriminations the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, lashed out at the Syrian regime and its backers, Iran, as well as Russia.

President Assad, she said: "Is not the only guilty party. The Iranian government bears a significant responsibility. The Russian government also bears considerable responsibility. Every time Assad has crossed the line of human decency, Russia has stood beside him."

"The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria. The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliance with Bashar al-Assad. The United States will no longer wait. Those days are over. The US took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary."

This is for the first time Washington has accused Assad of using Sarin since 2013 when hundreds of people died in an attack on a Damascus suburb. At that time the US had said Assad had crossed a "red line" set by the then President Barak Obama. Obama had threatened an air campaign to topple Assad but called it off at the last minute after the Syrian leader agreed to give up his chemical arsenal under a deal brokered by Moscow, a decision that Trump has long said proved Obama's weakness.

A UN Security Council report, however, last year warned that the regime had continued to carry out chlorine attacks on civilians. Human Rights Watch has documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, including systematic use in Aleppo.

Trump described the Tuesday attack as "heinous actions by the Bashar Al Assad regime" and faulted Obama for having failed to enforce the 'red line' four years ago. The Security Council should set up a mechanism to establish responsibility for the gas attack. If indeed Damascus is behind the attack, the Assad regime has not only committed a war crime but also violated a major international agreement.

Trump's confrontation with Moscow will be closely watched because of accusations by his political opponents that he is too supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had previously said that US and Russia should work more closely in Syria to fight against Daesh or the Islamic State. But as Russia has grown more assertive, including interfering in European politics and deploying missiles in Kaliningrad and a new ground-launched cruise missile near Volgograd in southern Russia—an apparent violation of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty—relations have cooled, observers said.

The chemical attack in Idlib province complicates diplomatic efforts to end a war that has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.

Over the past several months, Western countries, including the US, has been quietly dropping their demands that Assad steps down in any deal to end the war, ostensibly accepting that the rebels no longer had the capability to topple him by force.

The use of banned chemical weapons would make it difficult for the international community to sign off on any deal that does not remove him.

(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views are personal.)
M Shakeel Ahmed

M Shakeel Ahmed

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