The public statements and private actions of most foreign governments since the start of the Syrian crisis have been pretty unhelpful, so it’s pleasant to record an unexpected outbreak of realism about the possibility of the use of chemical weapons (CW), by someone, somewhere, in the conflict. The measured statements of the American government are all the more welcome.
There’s a reason for this, of course. In spite of all the hyperventilation, nobody thinks that an “intervention” in Syria would do anything more than increase the number of dead, whilst plunging the region into renewed violence. There are, after all, enough nations and other groups intervening in Syria already. And even if some kind of coherent strategy for “intervention” could be created, it wouldn’t work, not least because Syrians (of all persuasions) have a deserved reputation for toughness, and would fight hard.
So it’s in nobody’s interests to overplay the CW angle, the more so since direct evidence of CW use is almost impossible to come by. It’s possible that some refugees have been exposed to Sarin (a 1930s vintage gas originally developed in Germany) but it’s impossible to say whether this was deliberate or accidental. If it was deliberate, then the regime is the most likely culprit, since the training and equipment to use the weapons, probably in the form of artillery rounds, is beyond any recorded capability on the rebel side. But it’s more likely that the gas was released accidentally, during other fighting.
Which makes all the talk of “red lines” a bit silly, not least because Syria never signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and so has the right to hold and use CW stocks. Its weapons were designed to be a deterrent to Israel, which has massive and much more modern CW stocks of its own, and has never ratified the Convention, (although it did sign it). CW is actually pretty useless in the current situation, so its use or not is a pretty academic question in the circumstances. Thankfully, people don’t seem to be getting too worked up about it.