Western leaders are playing a delicate balancing act when it comes to developing a response to allegations that the Syrian government used chemical weapons: how to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad without getting in too deep militarily.
In the last few days several European countries, led largely by Britain, have said that the Syrian army was behind a chemical-weapons attack last week that killed hundreds of people – and that the Syrian government must be punished.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined the fray on Monday, saying that it was undeniable that chemical weapons were used against civilians in Syria, although he did not take the final step in naming the Syrian government as having used the weapons. He said, however, the Syrian government must be held accountable.
Mr. Kerry's comments were hardening the position adopted by Mr. Obama, who seemed far more uncertain last week.
Now the question is how to respond. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has been leading the charge for a military response. "We cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it," Mr. Hague said over the weekend. He went further Monday, suggesting that action could be taken without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, leaving the impression that NATO or some kind of coalition could carry out attacks.
French President François Hollande has been equally blunt, saying the West "cannot not react to the use of chemical weapons."
Western allies are moving toward a position of punishing Mr. al-Assad without necessarily doing anything further to back the rebel opposition, said David Butter, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House. That might be more palatable to Mr. Obama and others, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are less gung ho about launching missiles.
"I don't get the feeling that the U.S. or anybody else is, at the moment, interested in giving air cover for the rebel military campaign," Mr. Butter said Monday. "The way it has been presented is this is a measure of retribution, or punishment, if you like, for what the regime has done on the chemical-weapons front specifically, and an attempt to being a deterrent against them doing it again."
He added that the Western position "is that we have to make a credible statement that this kind of escalation [in chemical warfare] is something we're not going to just stand by and watch. We're going to hit your military structure very, very hard. But I don't think for the moment that they're ready for the extended kind of supporting operation that would go on until the rebels win."
But the strategy isn't without risk. This kind of punishment action is without a clear precedent, he added, and it is far from certain that it would even work. Syria is not Libya, which had a much weaker army and faced a more coherent opposition when Western allies launched air strikes in 2011. The West has also been divided about how to support the Syrian rebels, with countries like Canada opposing any supply of arms, fearing the weapons will end up in the hands of Islamist extremists.
Britain, on the other hand, has been a staunch supporter of arming the rebels and pushed successfully earlier this year to get the European Union to lift its embargo on arms shipments. The British have deep historic ties in the region and have been calling for the removal of Mr. al-Assad ever since the Arab Spring began in 2011. However, British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives do not have a majority in Parliament and their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are less convinced about the need for military action. Mr. Cameron will face stiff opposition in the House of Commons on any plan to involve the country's armed forces in Syria.
The Libyan action also won the backing of the UN Security Council after Russia and four other members abstained. That won't happen this time. Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, has made it clear that it will stop any move to win UN support for strikes against Mr. al-Assad's army. "The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday. "If anybody thinks that bombing and destroying the Syrian military infrastructure, and leaving the battlefield for the opponents of the regime to win, would end everything – that is an illusion."
Russia has been calling for a political solution to the Syrian civil war for months and it has suggested last week's chemical attack was likely the work of the opposition forces. Syria's other main ally, Iran, has also criticized the West for rushing ahead with military action.
There is a growing sense that the U.S. and its allies are committed to some kind of military action, which could also mean pushing aside the work of the UN chemical weapons inspectors, who arrived on Monday in the area where the attack occurred. Many in the West believe it will be virtually impossible for the inspectors to determine with certainty who carried out the attack.
"The UN inspectors will be able to provide a better guess, but it will be ambiguous enough for Russia and China to drive a cart and horses through it in the Security Council," wrote Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that focuses on chemical warfare.
And Mr. Hague appears to have already given up on the inspectors, suggesting that their conclusions are meaningless because the Syrian army will have compromised the evidence. "So in the light of that we're focused in the British government on how we respond to what has happened," he said.
HEATED RHETORIC: HOW THE WORLD HAS RESPONDED
Secretary of State John Kerry says chemical weapons were used in Syria, accuses President Bashar al-Assad of destroying evidence, and says the U.S. has additional information about the attack and will soon make it public. Mr. Kerry calls the attack a "moral obscenity" that should shock the conscience of the world.
President François Hollande says time is running out for the Syrian regime and airstrikes are a possibility. "Everything will come into play this week," he told Le Parisien newspaper. "There are several options on the table, ranging from strengthening international sanctions to airstrikes to arming the rebels."
Mr. Hollande spoke with President Barack Obama on Sunday and told him France, like Britain, would support him in a targeted military intervention, according to the paper.
"It's still too early to say categorically what will happen," he was quoted as saying. "The UN experts are going to investigate on site. We also have to allow time for the diplomatic process. But not too much. We can't go without a reaction when confronted with chemical weapons."
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said "all the options are open. The only option that I can't imagine would be to do nothing."
Germany suggests for the first time it may support the use of force if a chemical weapons attack is confirmed.
"The suspected large-scale use of poison gas breaks a taboo even in this Syrian conflict that has been so full of cruelty," said Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert. "It's a serious breach of the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which categorically bans the use of these weapons. It must be punished, it cannot remain without consequences."
Germany has "very clear evidence that this was a chemical weapons attack," Mr. Seibert said. He declined to speculate on what kind of response might now be needed in Syria, but repeatedly refused to rule out the use of force.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Western nations calling for military action against Syria have no proof the regime is behind the alleged attack.
"They cannot produce evidence, but keep on saying that the 'red line' has been crossed and they cannot wait any longer," he said at a Moscow news conference.
Mr. Lavrov likened the situation in Syria to the run-up before the 2003 Iraq invasion. He warned against military intervention in Syria, saying "the use of force without a sanction of the UN Security Council is a crude violation of international law."
Foreign Secretary William Hague says disagreements among the five UN Security Council members have prevented for too long any action being taken on Syria and "complete unity" wasn't necessary to launch a response.
"We cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity," he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said lawmakers could be recalled to debate any potential action over Syria as soon as this week and that Mr. Cameron plans to meet with national security advisers Wednesday. Mr. Cameron's spokesman said London reserves "the ability to take action swiftly if needed."
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says his country would take part in an international coalition against the al-Assad regime if the UN failed to come up with sanctions to punish Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
Turkey was once a close Syrian ally, but turned into one of Mr. al-Assad's harshest critics and is a key supporter of Syrian rebels. Turkey has repeatedly struck back at Syrian territory in response to shelling, mortar rounds or fire from across the border since shells from Syria struck a Turkish village in October, killing five people.
Speaking to reporters in Seoul, South Korea, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says "if proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime. We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity."
In New York, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said: "Despite the passage of a number of days, the secretary-general is confident that the team will be able to obtain and analyze evidence relevant for its investigation of the Aug. 21 incident."
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton says a decision about military intervention in Syria hasn't been made yet and the support of the UN Security Council for any such action remains "extremely important."
Ms. Ashton told reporters in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, that the world "needs to find a political solution" for Syria's bloodshed. She said it is difficult for the 28-member EU to reach a joint conclusion, but the bloc is considering "various options."
President Shimon Peres calls on the UN to appoint the Arab League to set up a temporary government in Syria to stop the bloodshed.
Mr. Peres's comments marked the highest-profile Israeli call for international intervention in neighbouring Syria. Israel has been careful to stay on the sidelines of Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 100,000. But international demands have been growing for action amid the chemical weapons attack allegations.
Mr. Peres said "foreigners will not understand what is going on in Syria" so the UN should task the Arab League with setting up a government.