The use of chemical weapons to attack civilians in Syria would be a uniquely abhorrent mass atrocity. If confirmed, it cannot be allowed to stand without a strong response from the international community. But consideration of any response should follow a core set of principles beginning with the protection of innocent men, women and children.
The current options being debated, including targeted missile strikes, carry immense potential unintended consequences for the many civilians caught in the chaos currently engulfing Syria. Military action could deepen the conflict and inflict even more death and injury to a besieged population in harm's way.
At the same time, lack of action in the face of the worst chemical weapons attack on civilians in 25 years cannot be ignored and those found to be responsible must be held accountable. The horrific nature and scope of casualties inflicted by chemical weapons has led most of the world to ban their use. Allowing an attack to occur without a response would give the wrong message and may very well increase the likelihood of their use against civilians in the future.
Accountability is essential to preventing future atrocities both in the immediate and long term. The UN Security Council should therefore demand greater and more sustained access for human rights monitors, as well as chemical weapons inspectors and expand their mandate to include investigation of responsibility for the use of such weapons. It should further refer cases of severe human rights abuses to the International Criminal Court.
In the immediate term, preparations should be made for increased refugee flows as well as the need for international humanitarian support for those still within Syria. If Syria continues to refuse full, unfettered access to those most in need, the international community should provide cross-border aid with or without their permission.
With more than 100,000 people killed and more than six million displaced within Syria or to neighboring countries, the current approach has clearly failed. And the longer the war continues, the deeper sectarian hatreds will build, increasing the chances for mass atrocities and genocide.
As the international community considers options to address this crisis, the protection of civilians and prevention of atrocities must be the highest priority.