The sharp escalation of tensions over Syria following allegations of a chemical weapons attack, and the situation in Iran, have overshadowed U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Mr. Obama on Wednesday waded into the controversy as to who might be responsible for the chemical attack — the Syrian government or the armed opposition — within hours of landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion international airport.
“Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer,” he said at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At least 25 people were killed and scores injured during the attack on Tuesday in a village on the outskirts of Aleppo, reported SANA, Syria’s state-run news agency.
Unlike the positions adopted by Syria, Russia and Iran, Mr. Obama’s take was loaded against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government. Mr. Obama said he was “deeply sceptical of any claim that it was the opposition that used chemical weapons”. He pointed out that the “Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical attacks”. Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz seemed to adopt a more neutral position. “It’s apparently clear that chemical weapons have been used against civilians by the rebels or the government,” Mr. Steinitz told Israel’s Army Radio.
With so much riding on identification of the attackers, the call for an inquiry among major international players has assumed the shape of a diplomatic tug-of-war.
During a Security Council debate on Wednesday, France backed the Syrian opposition’s call that the U.N. not only probe the use of chemical weapons in an area on the outskirts of Aleppo, but also at a second site in the suburbs of Damascus.
Russia slammed the French position as a means of delaying the investigation. “As far as I know, there is only one allegation of the use of chemical weapons.... There have been no other allegations,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russian envoy at the U.N. who holds the rotating presidency of the Council for March.
“To me, a concern which I expressed in the Council was that this was really a way to delay the need for immediate, urgent investigation of allegations pertaining to March 19 [chemical attack] by raising all sorts of issues,” he added.
He compared the latest western demand for the investigation to the inspections that were carried out against Iraq more than a decade ago, which failed to find any chemical weapons. “Instead of launching those propaganda balloons I think it’s much better to get our focus right,” he observed.
Syria’s Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Jaafari also said he was not aware of the alleged second chemical attack.
At the press conference, Mr. Obama reiterated that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but added that “there is time to resolve this issue diplomatically”.
The focus on Syria and Iran meant that discussions on the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian issue have been pushed to the backburner.
Nevertheless, once in Ramallah, Mr. Obama said Washington remained “deeply committed” to the creation of an “independent, sovereign state of Palestine”.
“Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own,” he observed during a press conference with Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority President. However, the sound bites emerging following the interaction with Mr. Abbas, did not suggest any breakthrough towards the resumption of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, stalled over the resumption of settlement activity by Israel in occupied Palestinian land.
The unease in the Palestinian territories was earlier underscored on Thursday when Gaza based militants targeted the Israeli town of Sderot with rockets, which did not cause any casualties.