With the possibility that a chemical weapons attack occurred last Wednesday in Syria, all parties, including the United States, should agree that the situation needs immediate attention by qualified, unbiased inspectors. On Sunday, the Syrian government agreed to allow an inspection by U.N. experts.
The relief group Doctors Without Borders said Saturday that more than 300 people were killed by what appears to be a toxic gas attack. If true, someone committed an unspeakable atrocity. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, adopted by the United States and 188 other states, governs chemical weapons. Syria, as well as Egypt and Israel, do not abide by the convention.
The quick presumption is that the government of President Bashar Assad carried out the chemical weapons attack, as claimed by some of the Syrian rebel groups, based primarily on the fact that the Syrian government is known to have such arms.
An argument that cuts the other way is based on the fact that the government forces are gaining ground on the divided, underarmed rebels and might be less inclined to use chemical weapons because it would increase the risk of international intervention on the side of the rebels. It is also interesting that Russia, an Assad ally, strongly favors outside inspection of the possible use of chemical weapons.
President Barack Obama painted the United States into a bit of a corner last year when he called government use of chemical weapons in Syria "a red line" that, if crossed, could bring a U.S. response. Americans in a recent poll opposed U.S. intervention by 61 percent, no doubt recalling false claims that Iraq had nuclear weapons before the United States entered that war.
Israel, Turkey and some Sunni Muslim-led Persian Gulf states favor U.S. involvement on the side of the rebels. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, has strongly underscored the reasons for the United States to stay out, including the chaotic, anti-American nature of some of the rebel groups and the high cost of intervention.
In the meantime, the United Nations chemical weapons inspection team in Syria must determine if this was indeed a chemical attack and, if so, who perpetrated it.