President Donald Trump made an implicit threat to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, following the distressing gas attack in Idlib, Syria that killed 72 people. On Tuesday 4 of April, the Syrian government dropped bombs throughout the night, which contained a toxic chemical – amounting to a war crime under United Nations (UN) sanctions. This has been the deadliest chemical assault since 2013, when the Syrian Government dropped sarin on the Damascus suburbs, killing hundreds of people as they slept. Due to Russian pressure, Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons in 2013 and claimed it had eliminated its stockpiles. The recent chemical attack has sparked international outrage and refocused political priorities.
Syria’s representative, Mounzer Moumzer, dismissed the accusation that his country was to blame, saying Damascus condemns the use of chemical weapons. “We don’t have them. We never use them,” he told the council. Russian officials blamed Syrian rebels for the chemical attack that killed scores of people – many of them women and children. This claim by the Russians reflects attempts by Moscow to shield its ally, the Syrian regime, after the global condemnation for one of the most horrendous attacks in recent history. In the past, Syria’s government and Russia have blamed Syrian rebel factions for attacks without offering any conclusive evidence.
French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the Security Council’s credibility will be at stake if it continues not to act, and he said Russia bears special responsibility as a sponsor of inconclusive peace talks between the Syrian government and the rebel groups. The US’ culminated frustration with the lack of progress through the UN Security Council gave way to the decision to act solely in solving this crisis. Nicki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations, stated that “there are times at the United Nations when we are compelled to take collective action.” Haley went on to say that, “when the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
On Friday 7 April, the US launched a military strike against Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. In recognition of the Syrian conflict (now entering its seventh year), Trump proclaimed that this “is my responsibility” and that “their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.” Trump went on to state that the chemical weapons attack “crosses a lot of lines for me.” Trump drew attention to one of his greater criticisms of the Obama Administration, when claiming that Assad and the regime’s actions previously “crossed a line” in 2012 but how it failed to take action.
One cannot help but be outraged by these blatant crimes against humanity. It is condemnable that the Trump administration undertook significant military action against the regime. It is impossible to gain peace by creating an environment that fosters more violence. The major hindrance at this point is the Russian alliance to Syria – if that is somehow diminished, greater diplomatic progress could be made.
The war in Syria has killed an estimated 400,000 people in the last six years, as the country is consumed by infighting between government and rebel forces. It has estimated to have cost US$350 billion in lost infrastructure and productivity and has left 80 percent of the country living in poverty. Nearly half of the entire Syrian population has been displaced, with millions heading to neighbouring countries or Europe to flee the fighting. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “everybody is losing” the war that was affecting the entire region. “It is having a detrimental and destabilizing effect on the entire region and it is providing a focus that is feeding the new threat of global terrorism,” he said.
The cloud that brought such devastation to the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun had no smell and affected even those who came into contact with the dead, indicating that it was sarin gas – a chemical compound developed by the Nazis and 26 times more deadly than cyanide. The medical charity, Medicines Sans Frontieres, said its doctors treated victims with dilated pupils, muscle spasms, and involuntary defecation – symptoms “consistent with exposure to neuro-toxic agents such as sarin.”
Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack their own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable. The Syrian conflict is not an easy fix, but instead of military force being the primary solution, diplomatic reasoning and accountability should be given greater prominence moving forward.
“History will judge all of us in how we respond to these unforgettable and unforgivable images of the innocent. How long are we going to sit here and pretend that actions in these chambers have no consequences?” – British Ambassador, Matthew Rycroft.