Editorial: The world must hold Assad accountable

The Syrian disarmament deal pieced together by Russia and the United States has laid bare the nature of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After years of obfuscation, he has now come out to declare that he possesses chemical weapons and is ready to give it all up. Gallingly, he has suggested that since the US appears so eager to see him rid of these weapons of mass destruction, it should offer to bear the US$1 billion (S$1.2 billion) cost of dismantling his heinous arsenal.

That was rich indeed.

Mr Assad maintains that the chemical weapons attack of Aug 21 was not his doing, but that of rebels seeking to draw other players into the country's civil war, a position that his Russian backers have been asserting too. Lamentably, the United Nations inspectors who established clearly that a sarin gas attack did take place on a Damascus suburb, were unhelpfully vague about who was responsible, although some observers see hints in their report which point to Mr Assad's regime.

All of which makes clear that the disarmament deal brokered by Russia, which the world has hailed, is a tenuous one, at best. There's no telling if it will work, how long it will take, what is to be done if it breaks down and just how it can help bring peace to a war-torn nation.

This unhappy state of affairs raises many troubling questions. If a country like Syria can with impunity amass so much mustard gas, sarin and other nerve gases, is the world really capable of curbing other rogue nations from doing so and, importantly, bringing them to task if they cock a snook at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?

Even when a disarmament deal is struck, it is disconcerting to see there is no clear and safe plan for the destruction of chemical weapons that all are in agreement with.

Ultimately, the Syria question should not be viewed merely as a game of one-upmanship between Russia and America. If the deal holds, Russian President Vladimir Putin's standing in the Middle East could rise; and if it comes apart, US President Barack Obama will be in no better place than before, having to convince an unwilling Congress and war-weary citizens that military action is in order.

What is more important is for the UN Security Council to clearly state just what action will be taken under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter for non-compliance by Syria's regime, and how it will hold Mr Assad accountable for what United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon has called his "many crimes against humanity".

For the UN and world community, there is no ducking these difficult issues. For Syria, the use of chemical weapons is just a part of the larger suffering that its hapless people have had to endure for too long.

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