A bombing in the Rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun is said to have killed as many as 70 people on Tuesday, April 4. Multiple eyewitnesses have claimed that the bombing, which targeted the city’s main hospital and other public areas, featured the use of Chemical Weapons. According to one survivor, the bombs left a yellow mushroom cloud, and emergency service workers and others who attempted to retrieve victims of the bombing asphyxiated, and were found dead at the scene.
Of particular concern is the allegation that these attacks included the use of chemical weapons, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention for which Syria has been heavily criticized for in the past.
These allegations have triggered a flurry of accusations and denial between the two sides, with the United States, France, Britain, and the U.N. condemning the attacks, and pointing the finger at corroboration between Syria and Russia. A spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks had not featured the use of chemical weapons, but rather that conventional weapons used by the Syrian Military had hit workshops in the Rebel-controlled town “which produced chemical warfare munitions”. The statement went on to claim that the weapons produced in this workshop were regularly transported to Iraq.
A representative of Britain’s Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment (CBRN) responded that the claim was “unsustainable and completely untrue”. The responses of regional actors to this claim have been similar. Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the regional Free Idlib Army rebel group also rebuked Russia’s claim, stating “everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas”. The attack is reflective of the Assad Regime’s disregard for the rules and regulations of war. According to Human Rights Watch, the Regime dropped bombs containing chlorine in Rebel-held areas on more than 8 occasions between November 17th and December 13th of 2016. Though these attacks have regularly been condemned, that condemnation has not stopped the Syrian and Russian governments from carrying out their brutal campaign.
Such inaction points to the ongoing lack of enforcement mechanisms that plagues international attempts to limit the use of chemical weapons. Still, the stance of the Trump Administration regarding Syria more generally is yet to become fully clear, and could have important implications for the future of the war in Syria. In a join press conference with the Jordanian King Abdullah II, The President stated that the attack in Syria “crossed a lot of lines for me”. As of yet though, the failure of the international community to bring about a peaceful outcome in Syria will remain a prescient issue.