Syria's civil war has wrought a heavy toll, with more than 100,000 people killed, two million made refugees and a quarter of the country's 23 million population displaced. That has not been enough for the international community to act decisively, the experience of Iraq hanging heavily over decision-making. But matters would be different were chemical weapons to have been used by either the government or rebel side. UN inspectors, therefore, have to be given every support in determining what happened in the eastern Damascus district of Ghouta last Wednesday and their findings considered judiciously.
Evidence would seem to point to a chemical strike of significant proportions on residents, who are largely supportive of the rebels. The government denies such an attack, although it is suspected of having stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent. A harrowing video released by the opposition shows rows of bodies, people struggling for breath and paramedics trying to save the lives of infants. Medecins Sans Frontieres said at the weekend three hospitals it supports had treated 3,600 patients with symptoms of neurotoxins, of whom 355 had died.
UN chemical weapons inspectors were in Damascus just 15 minutes away at the time of the claimed attack. They had been given approval to visit three other places where incidents were said to have occurred. It took Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government five days to give the green light for the team to inspect the site. That, contends the US, is too little, too late and has given time for "significant corruption" of the evidence.
Chemical weapons are banned by international agreement, although Syria is not party to the treaty. But that does not mean the world can stand idly by if an atrocity has taken place. There are limits to how a government can treat its people; the same internationally accepted standards apply between groups within a nation. The rules of war were negotiated and put in place for good reason and if they are to have any meaning, have always to be respected.
Time and care have to be taken in responding to the team's findings. If chemical weapons are conclusively proven to have been used, the world has to take action. What form that takes has to be by mutual agreement, through the UN Security Council. China and Russia, permanent members of the council and allies of Assad, have to keep their international obligations in mind. But there can be no rushed conclusions or rash decisions; mistakes of the past have to be avoided.