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On Tuesday, April 11th, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis announced that America’s top priority in the Middle East remained the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Strengthening the former US position, he made it clear that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated and could warrant additional military attacks, like last week’s missile strike against a Syrian air base.
During his first Pentagon briefing as Secretary of Defence, Mattis stated, “If [the attackers] use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price.” He continued by stating there was “no doubt” the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical attack in Syria that killed scores of civilians. When asked whether Syria’s key ally, Russia, was complicit in the attack, Mattis ambiguously answered: “There’s no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack… the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it and executed it, and beyond that we cannot say right now.”
After Thursday’s intervention and a wake of mixed messages from the US administration regarding regime change in Damascus, Mattis sought to send a clear message about US military objectives and priorities in Syria to eliminate any confusion. The strike against Al-Shayrat Airfield was tied specifically to Assad’s decision to use chemical weapons. “Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS, [which is] a clear and present danger,” said Mattis. He did not indicate whether the US was pursuing a wider military campaign aimed at ousting Assad.
The United States has a moral and strategic interest to ensure the use of chemical weapons is strongly condemned. While other weapons remain silently accepted, such as undeclared nuclear programs in Israel, chemical weapons have been widely accepted as weapons aimed at eliminated populations, rather than weapons of interstate wars. To this end, Mattis clearly linked the use of Sarin Gas in Syria to the damage done to Assad’s air force from the US missile strike.
The Syrian regime should think long and hard before it acts again so recklessly in violation of international law by using of chemical weapons. Some ambiguity remains, however, on whether the most commonly used chemical weapon in the Syrian civil war, chlorine-filled barrel bomb dropped from aircraft’s, would warrant military action and concern. International monitoring groups, including the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism, have only accused Assad’s air force of using such weapons multiple times. Until this point, there has been no immediate action against the use of chlorine-filled barrel bombs.