"Game changers" and "red lines" are the phrases du jour currently swirling around Washington, DC, as debate heats up over what to do in regards to Syrian civil war. The latest "red line" that may have been crossed are the claims that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in its war against the opposition forces. President Barack Obama has previously affirmed that the United States will not stand idle if chemical weapons were to be used.
However, last week brought a turn of events as senior United Nations official, Carla del Ponte, cast doubt over whether it was really the regime that had used lethal sarin gas. Del Ponte, who currently serves as the lead investigator of the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry in Syria, made headlines after saying she was "stupefied by Syrian opposition sarin use". The White House immediately dismissed the emerging media storm, this time rightfully so, as there are too many unanswered questions around who resorted to using the deadly nerve gas.
Nevertheless, the story reveals the perils of playing Chinese whispers or broken telephone in international affairs. Just as whispers are misunderstood down the line different media outlets began flooding news feeds with reports that evidence pointed to the rebels crossing the red line.
In any other case, the media would be expected to take the statements coming from a high-ranking U.N. representative with utmost gravity. However, this is not the first time del Ponte has been the subject of controversy, which might raise some questions over her more recent claims.
Not that long ago, del Ponte was the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In that role, del Ponte was able to achieve something few others have ever done; she was able to get all the warring sides in the Yugoslav conflicts to agree on a single point. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Kosovars all agreed that they distrusted the prosecutor.
Del Ponte's supporters say this is a testament to her persistence and drive. Yet, she chose to pursue very public campaigns against individuals that were later acquitted. She used limited resources to build cases that were later dismissed by the Tribunal altogether. In one such case, she accused the Vatican of taking part in a massive conspiracy to help hide a Croatian General. He was later acquitted. In another, she published a book that apparently revealed human organs trafficking in Kosovo. This was denied by those working with her and was later uncovered to be baseless.
The ICTY and her native Swiss Government have both tried to disown her claims and distance themselves from her due to these indiscretions. They view her, as we must, as a loose cannon.
In Syria, nothing is clear. There is still no definitive proof, one way or the other, that it was the regime or the opposition that used chemical weapons. But, what is clear is that it is not within the mandate of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry to conduct a full investigation into the use of chemical weapons. This is the job of the U.N. weapons inspectors, who are currently waiting in Cyprus. Indeed, it was the panel of weapons inspectors that issued the prompt statement that "it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict."
Del Ponte's Commission has only been given the authorisation to investigate human rights violations. She does not possess the irrefutable evidence nor the expertise to be making such claims.
It is not hard to see then why the US government stood less than impressed by del Ponte's outspokenness, especially couple of weeks after doubling the non-lethal aid to the opposition groups. The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, emphasised the US position remains the same – if chemical weapons were indeed used, it is more likely that Assad's regime is to blame for it.
Moreover, it is more than clear that the US has drawn another line. This pertains to working multilaterally towards resolution of conflict. The US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow recently loosely pledged that their countries would work together to respond to the worsening crisis in Syria.
Still, from the way things look at the moment, it seems we are unlikely to see any consensus on a coordinated response from the major powers. What is more, the lack of tact of one U.N. official and selective reporting on part of the media certainly did not do much to help the Syrian opposition's cause. And for all the talk of "game changers" and "red lines", the only thing we can be certain of are the limits of our knowledge on what is really happening in Syria. With that in mind, one should be careful not to play the broken telephone game again.
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