Hans Blix was the chief UN arms inspector for Iraq from 2000-2003. He was also the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1981 to 1997 and Swedish minister of foreign affairs (1978-79). He spoke with Global Viewpoint Network editor Nathan Gardels on Monday, August 26.
Nathan Gardels: Based on your experience, and what you've seen in recent days, do you believe the verdict of the Western intelligence agencies that Assad used chemical weapons is credible and reliable?
Hans Blix: The indications are certainly in the direction of the use of chemical weapons. Also, the circumstantial evidence points to the Assad regime carrying out the use of such weapons.
However, since the Western powers have asked for United Nations inspections -- and Syria has accepted and inspectors have been put in the field -- we all should wait to see the report of the inspectors before action is taken.
As we've seen before, the political dynamics are running ahead of due process.
Gardels: An echo of Iraq under President Bush?
Blix: In a way, yes. Then, too, the Americans and their allies asked for inspections for mass destruction weapons. Then, too, they said, "forget it, we have enough evidence on our own to act. We are the world police. Our publics are demanding immediate action!"
I do not go along with the statement by the U.S. that "it is too late" for Syria now to cooperate. That is a poor excuse for taking military action.
Only last March, the West was satisfied with inspections concerning the use of chemical weapons. Why can't they wait again now? In one month when you have accurate tissue samples we will know for sure exactly which kind of chemical weapons have been used and who possesses such weapons.
Gardels: But now it is President Barack Obama, not George Bush, taking on the role of world policeman?
Blix: Yes. He was the only one, some time ago now, who talked about international legality. I was heartened by that. But now I'm afraid the politics of the moment are pushing him in a direction we've seen before in the United States.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also doesn't seem to care much about international legality. And this time, neither do the French.
As far as they are all concerned, a criminal act has been committed so now they must engage in what they call "retaliation." I don't see what they are retaliating about. The weapons weren't used against them. It should be the rebels who want retaliation.
If the aim is to stop the breach of international law and to keep the lid on others with chemical weapons, military action without first waiting for the UN inspector report is not the way to go about it.
This is about world police, not world law.
Gardels: Do the Western intelligence agencies know where the chemical weapons are? Are they vulnerable? Can an air attack be effective?
Blix: Well, the Israelis know where they are. But attacking stockpiles with cruise missiles, as I understand it, has the disadvantage that is might spread chemical weapons in the vicinity of any attack.
Gardels: What are the implications of the U.S. and its Western allies once again taking action without the United Nations? There was Kosovo, then Iraq, then Libya. Now, it appears, Syria will join the list. Blix: In Kosovo the intervention was based upon NATO approval. This was not enough. I do not think NATO approval is satisfactory in terms of international law. You need to have Security Council approval.
In the Iraq case, the Bush administration did not care at all about the UN. They just went ahead with the British and a few others. They were totally contemptuous of the UN.
I remember that John Kerry, now U.S. secretary of state and who was a senator then, was ridiculed at that time for saying the U.S. should wait for UN inspections and approval of action.
In the wake of the Iraq war, Obama, in his Nobel lecture, also argued that military action should not be taken against other states without UN Security Council approval. That was then, I guess. Now is now.
In Libya, there was a Security Council resolution, but it was very liberally interpreted after the fact, strained from its intent to protect civilians under impending attack to the overthrow of Kaddafi.
Gardels: But the Russians and Chinese will never agree to take military action against Syria, so why even try the UN route?
Blix: The Russians and Chinese have said they want "fair and professional inspections" in Syria. The Iranians have also agreed. In this matter they have a serious interest; the Iranians have suffered most in the world from the use of chemical weapons in their war with Iraq during Saddam's time.
They are not condoning the use of chemical weapons by their friends in Damascus.
In my view, it is certainly a possibility that you can achieve world condemnation of Syria in the Security Council -- including from Russia, China and Iran -- if inspections prove the suspicions.
Gardels: But they will never go along with military action?
Blix: China and Russia will not accept military action. That is true. But let us ask: "What kind of military action is really possible, and what will it really do?" A cruise missile attack on suspected weapons depots in Syria will mean little, and perhaps nothing.
Remember President Clinton's punitive cruise missile attacks in 1998 on reputed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a supposed nerve agent factory in Khartoum in Sudan. The pinpricks in Afghanistan did nothing to stop Al Qaeda. Khartoum turned out to be a total error. It was a pharmaceutical plant.
If military action is all about "punishing" Assad to satisfy public and media opinion without even hearing the UN inspectors report, it will be a sad day for international legality.