Sarin In Syria: Will It Force The US To Act?


On the morning of April 4th, warplanes dropped chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, an area under the rebel control and populated by refugees. As of April 5th, the death toll has risen to 72 of which 20 are children. Previously, the US had taken a hands-off approach in regards to the Syrian war. However, the attack has drawn a response from President Trump: “These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”

The chemical weapon was identified to be Sarin, a potent nerve agent that can kill a victim within one minute after exposure. Its production, stockpile and usage are banned, as outlined in the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and imposed starting from 1997.

The US, UK and France condemns Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack and Russia for supporting the government despite the atrocities. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting the day after the attack. The three countries presented a resolution that accused Syrian government for the attack and demanded an investigation by inspecting the flight logs from April 4th.

In response, the Syrian government has denied any and all accusations, stating that “It has never used them, anytime, anywhere, and will not do so in the future.” Instead, President Assad pointed the finger toward the rebel fighters. Russia continues to support Syria on this matter. It says that the aim of the warplanes was to destroy “a large terrorist ammunition depot” and claimed that “terrorists had been transporting chemical munitions from this largest arsenal.” It has also vetoed the resolution presented by the US, UK and France saying that it is not supporting “false information.”

The credibility of Russia’s explanation is slim. According to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commanding officer for the British Armed Forces Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment, Russia’s opinion is “pretty fanciful,” and he adds that “if you blow up Sarin, you destroy it.” The UN French representative also commented that if the air strike was to destroy ammunition, it “would have caused a fire” which it did not.

Unlike its previous stance in regards to the Syrian war, the US took a strong side in the chemical attack. Nikki Haley, the US representative in the UN Security Council, said that “if Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it” and questioned “how many more children have to die before Russia cares?” President Trump also responded by saying that the attack “crossed a lot of lines for me” and that “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

It is still early to judge the extent to which President Trump’s attitude has changed. Will he consider taking “our own action” as Haley hinted in the emergency meeting and risk deteriorating his relationship with Russia? Or is he only going to suggest solutions within the boundaries of what Russia may think acceptable? Either decision will not immediately end the war or the sufferings of innocent civilians.

The outcome of the strike exposed various issues regarding the war: firstly, the stalemate in the UN: Russia and the US stands in opposing sides, inactivating the international organization; secondly, the empty promises of chemical disarmament from Syrian government; thirdly, the extent to which Russia is willing to support its allies in Syria; and lastly, US’s change in tone in regards to the war.

Min Ji Kim

Undergraduate student studying Biochemistry at University of Oxford