Chemical Weapons Attacks In Syria: The New Normal

On the evening of Saturday, April 7th, the government of Bashar al-Asaad once again hit its own people with what is suspected be another chemical weapon attack. The incident occurred in the city of Douma, which is one of the last areas controlled by rebel army “The Army of Islam,” and part of the Ghouta region located east of Damascus.

After suffering a series of airstrikes, reports eventually surfaced indicating that 42 people had perished due to suffocation from poisonous gases. Many of them were found in their homes, hoping to seek refuge from the Syrian army’s assault. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based organization that utilizes on-the-ground Syrian contacts, reported a total of 56 casualties, children and women included, over the weekend.

Soon after, many Western governments proceeded to express their alarm at the attack and condemned the actions of Mr. Assad’s military. The United States announced that it was investigating the veracity of the chemical weapons use, and the U.K. followed suit by asking for an inquiry into the event to be undertaken.

However, with powerful backers such as Russia and Iran, investigations of any kind into the use of chemical weapons in the country have been mediocre at best, and futile at worst. It also hasn’t helped that Russia has utilized its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to stop the body’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, which was previously tasked with overseeing the authenticity of the chemical weapons accusations (Russia has been against the Mechanism, arguing that it is being used as a tool for Western countries to fabricate evidence and justify an invasion of Syria).

As a result, many areas that have been subject to accusations of chemical weapons usage have been strictly monitored by regime forces, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to access and gather the requisite samples that are needed for a thorough investigation.

Nevertheless, regardless of these probes, the reality is that the usage of chemical weapons in Syria has been normalized. Human Rights Watch, a non-government organization, has indicated that so far there have been 85 instances where chemical weapons have allegedly been used during the civil war (most of it by regime forces). And, to make matters worse, a horrible precedent was set by former U.S. President Barack Obama, when he set his famous “red line” regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons and subsequently refused to engage the country militarily after regime forces had killed almost 1,500 people in a chemical weapon attack. Against this backdrop, unfortunately, there should be no surprise that today Assad feels no real threat in relation to the utilization of these weapons, less so when he has Russia helping him.

Yet, there is hope. Sort of. A year ago, after Syrian regime forces attacked the village of Khan Sheikhun with a chemical weapon, the current American President, Donald Trump, surprised pundits and critics after he ordered the launch of Tomahawk missiles into Syria. And this week, for the first time ever, he directly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin via Twitter as causing indiscriminate death for being a backer of Assad. More importantly, however, is that there are indications that the U.K. is strongly lobbying Mr. Trump in order to build a coalition that will effectively address the Syrian question. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, is also very much on board with this approach. As such, the following days and weeks will tell us how just robust this approach will end up being.

Keith G. Sujo
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