The G7 appears to have joined calls for an independent investigation of the alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack.
Such an investigation was supposed to be the subject of a meeting of the UN Security Council which was taking place last week. Instead that meeting was indefinitely postponed, the US declared President Assad guilty of the attack, and launched its missiles in reprisal. The result is that a further week has passed, giving ample opportunity for those involved to cover up or doctor the evidence, and with no less a person than the President of the United States publicly declaring President Assad guilty and launching his missiles in reprisal, the whole issue has been politicised far beyond the point where a truly impartial or independent investigation is any longer possible. Probably the best that can now be hoped for is an investigation that takes weeks or even months to report, allowing passions in the meantime to die down.
That probably is the thinking of the three European members of the G7 – Germany, France and Italy – that are pressing hardest for the investigation. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on Sunday, when Lavrov appears to have pressed the idea of an investigation on him. On the question of the need for such an investigation the Europeans, somewhat unusually, have sided with the Russians against the Americans, almost certainly because German public opinion is known to oppose the US missile strikes.
Though no one should have any high expectations of what the results of an investigation into the alleged Khan Sheikhoun attack will lead to, Russian statements since the attack do suggest that the Russians are very confident of their facts and the fact that the Europeans are calling for an investigation after the US missile strike is hardly a ringing endorsement of the US claims President Assad is guilty.
Also it is fair to point out that the UN inquiry into the attack on the humanitarian convoy in September 2016, though placed under intense pressure and working under the severest constraints, proved unexpectedly impartial, clearing the Russians entirely and suggesting the Syrians bombed the convoy by mistake. That almost certainly happened because the head of that inquiry – an Indian military officer – was a tough and principled man, who insisted on the inquiry doing its job properly. Whilst the US and its Western allies will doubtless be working overtime to ensure that any inquiry into the Khan Sheikhoun attack is not headed by such a person, since the inquiry will be set up by the UN the Russians will also have a say, and it is not completely inconceivable that it might in the end do its job properly.
If it does, and if it does report that the Russian version of what happened in Khan Sheikhoun – that the chemical was released because it was stored by the Jihadis in a warehouse that the Syrian air force bombed – is true, then this could cause President Trump more than just embarrassment. As I discussed previously, there is no doubt he acted illegally by ordering the missile strike without Congressional approval or UN Security Council authorisation. Whether his enemies would be willing to make use of the fact that he acted not just illegally but also wrongly because an international investigation reported that there was no Syrian chemical weapons strike on Khan Sheikhoun is another matter.