Reactions to Looming US Attack on Syria

August 27, 2013

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued the strongest yet condemnation of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in the wake of his forces’ alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians last week.  His comments have been perceived by some in the media as intended to set the stage for some form of military action in the country.  Reactions to Kerry’s speech from around the world seem to show a coalescence of opinion into more defined camps than we’ve yet seen on the issue of intervention in Syria.  The following are some of the highlights of comments emerging from governments and international organizations.

Syria immediately warned of the repercussions of any attack:

“We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding.  Normally the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel,” warned Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath Party official and former assistant information minister.  “If the US or Israel make the mistake of taking advantage of the chemical issue…the region will go up in flames.”

The threat to Israel was echoed by Syria’s Iranian ally:

“No military attack will be waged against Syria,” Director-General of the parliament for International Affairs Hossein Sheikholeslam said.  “Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”

Israel promised to defend itself against such a threat:

The Israeli minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, promised that “if we are under attack, we will protect ourselves and we will act decisively.”

Russia issued the most forceful condemnation of Kerry’s remarks:

In an “emergency” press conference, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that as a result of Kerry’s statements, “hysteria is growing and confrontation is incited.”  He stated forcefully that military action against Syria would be a “catastrophe,” accused the West of ignoring international law, and warned that “the tide will turn one day.”

China, the other government expected to oppose Syrian action at the UN, took a slightly more measured tone in its most recent comments:

In a statement on Friday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, “China is firmly opposed to the use of chemical weapons by any party in Syria.”  The statement urged the parties involved to seek a political solution rather than military action, calling on all sides to “work together to hold the second Geneva Conference on Syria as soon as possible and launch an inclusive political transition process.”

The United Nations maintains its commitment to its chemical weapons investigation:

“I demand that all parties allow this mission to get on with the job so that we can begin to establish the facts,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.  “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.”

Turkey, however, argued the world must act regardless of U.N. action:

“We always prioritize acting together with the international community, with United Nations decisions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.  “If such a decision doesn’t emerge from the U.N. Security Council, other alternatives…would come onto the agenda,” he continued.  “If a coalition is formed against Syria in this process, Turkey would take its place in this coalition.”

The United Kingdom expressed similar frustration over U.N. inaction:

“The United Nations Security Council…has not been united on Syria,” argued British Foreign Minister William Hague.  “It’s not shouldered its responsibilities on Syria, bluntly, otherwise there would have been a better chance of bringing the conflict to an end a long time ago.”

France offered the most detailed list of options for international action:

“There are several options on the table, from the strengthening of international sanctions to air strikes or the arming of rebels,” French President Francois Hollande declared.  He too expressed limited patience for the U.N. investigation and deliberation, adding, “The U.N. experts will investigate.  We will also give a little more time to the diplomatic process.  But not too much.  We cannot stand idly by over the use of chemical weapons.”

Germany, previously among the most reluctant on the issue of intervention, for the first time suggested, albeit vaguely, that military action might be necessary:

The evidence of chemical weapons “speak a very clear language,” and if confirmed, it “must be punished, it cannot be without consequence,” a government spokesman said.  Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle similarly said that in the event that chemical weapons use is verified, “Germany will be among those [countries], that consider it right for there to be consequences.”

However, the strong words out of London, Paris, and Berlin are not fully mirrored by those of the European Union, who adopted a more deferential tone toward the United Nations:

“It is the role of the Security Council to look and see how the international community can and should respond,” E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said in a statement.  “The most important thing in the end is we have to find a political solution to this and quickly.”


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.