Brazen chemical attack in Syria tests the world again

All evidence suggests that a Syrian regime or Russian warplane dropped a nerve agent, a weapon of mass destruction, in the town of Khan Shaykhun. Will the international community once again fail to hold anyone accountable for this war crime?

Photo by: (AFP)
Photo by: (AFP)

A Syrian child receives treatment at a small hospital in the town of Maaret al-Noman following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on April 4, 2017.

Updated Apr 5, 2017
Kyle Orton Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based security and foreign policy think tank. @KyleWOrton

Overnight, a warplane—belonging either to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or the Russian government that is supporting his war effort—has dropped chemical weapons on a town in northern Syria, massacring at least sixty people.

While it will take time to confirm exactly what was used, the available information suggests that the regime coalition deployed a nerve agent, a weapon of mass destruction that is internationally banned.

Such substances were supposed to have been removed from Assad’s arsenal three-and-a-half years ago under the “deal” US President Barack Obama signed with Russia. In reality that agreement, which called off military strikes against Assad, was a smokescreen for a pro-Assad victory that collapsed the taboo against using chemical weapons—leaving Syria as a conflict without boundaries, opening the way to unimaginable human suffering and international destabilisation.

The Attack on Khan Shaykhun

Around 6 AM local time, when it could be guaranteed that the casualties would be very high, a chemical attack struck Khan Shaykhun, a town within the administrative boundaries of Idlib Province in northern Syria. A minimum of sixty people have been killed; local estimates exceed 100.

Videos and pictures of the scene show the dead and wounded, including many children. The visible symptoms include foaming and narrow pupils, and there are reported injuries to first-responders. In addition to the scale of the fatalities, this is suggestive of a nerve agent, whether Sarin, Tabun, VX, or some cocktail is unclear at this stage.

A crater at the site of the air strike in the town of Khan Shaykhun. The Syrian Army claims it hit a "jihadist gas factory" in a statement made to a pro-regime media outlet.

One reason that the death toll is so unclear is that the victims have been so dispersed. Local medical facilities were quickly overwhelmed and the nearest major medical facility is the national hospital in Marat al-Numan, twenty minutes north of Khan Shaykhun, which was put out of service by air strikes from the pro-Assad coalition on Sunday. Whether this was merely a coincidental part of the pro-Assad coalition’s consistent targeting of hospitals to weaken opposition-supporting communities as part of the counterinsurgency policy of collective punishment, or whether it was targeted and pre-meditated in advance of this chemical attack is uncertain.

To add to the cruelty, the pro-Assad coalition has launched a wave of air strikes on Khan Shaykhun after the chemical attack, destroying medical centres treating those who had been gassed and killing the first-responders from the Syrian Civil Defense (“White Helmets”).

A civil defense member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib.

Ghouta Attack

The scenes today inevitably summon the memory of the 21 August 2013 attack by Assad on the Ghouta suburbs around Damascus with Sarin that slaughtered 1,400 people in a few hours. It was obscene on its own terms that the international community only drew a “red line” around chemical weapons—implicitly giving a pass to the regime’s mass-use of artillery or air strikes against cities. Still, it appeared that finally there were to be some limits enforced on Syria’s battlefield.

President Obama readied punitive air strikes against Assad, but he faltered and the Russian ruler Vladimir Putin pounced on Obama’s indecision. Putin offered to get Obama off the hook with a “deal” that would decommission Syria’s chemical weapons—which it denied having until that point—in exchange for Obama abandoning plans for military operations against Assad. Obama accepted.

Re-ligitimising Assad, Failing to Disarm

President Obama remains unrepentant about his stand-down in 2013; he is “very proud” of this moment, he said in 2016, and in his final press conference defended his entire Syria policy as the best that could have been done. In reality, the “non-strike incident” was a devastating defeat for the United States.

It discredited US allies among the rebels in Syria, strengthening the hand of the extremists who had said all along that America was no kind of friend. On the other side, Iran had already begun moving Shia jihadists into Syria and would now cement its position in the country—further bolstering radicals among the insurgency. US allies as far afield as South Korea were disturbed that US security guarantees could be reversed if Moscow thought quickly enough, and US adversaries in Iran, China, and Russia were emboldened by “how weak the US now looked on the international stage”.

For this exorbitant price, the deal did not—and could never have—eliminated Assad’s chemical munitions, ending them as a feature of Syria’s war. If Assad ever completed the elimination of his chemical weapons program, the legitimacy the Russians had won for him by making him a partner to the West in disarmament would be at an end.

It became clear quite quickly that the regime had lied in its declaration of its holdings when joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, and not only retained production facilities but actual stockpiles of chemical WMD. Assad switched to using chlorine on a relatively large scale. Even then, however, it doesn’t seem that the WMD use ceased: there are credible reports from December that the regime coalition used nerve agents in villages in eastern Hama.

A man carries the body of a child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib.

License to Kill

The US-Russia deal was codified in a United Nations Security Council resolution in September 2013, with a promise that it would not become a “license to kill with conventional weapons,” except that that is exactly what it became, removing all restrains in Syria, an environment in which groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) also thrived.

In February 2016, the United Nations reported after extensive investigation that the Assad regime had undertaken a “systematic and widespread attack against [the Syrian] civilian population,” that amounted to extermination, murder, rape, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, and other inhumane acts as crimes against humanity, plus a raft of war crimes. Even with this scale of barbarism, which has killed 500,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population, it is perhaps in Assad’s jails that the most concentrated evil takes place.

By May 2011, two months into the peaceful protests against Assad, the regime had emptied the infamous Sednaya prison of hardened jihadists in an attempt to stain the uprising with sectarianism and violence. Assad wanted—as senior regime officials have admitted—to face the world with a choice of the tyrant or a terrorist takeover. So while the holy warriors went free, the cells were filled with secular civil society activists, lawyers, journalists, doctors, aid workers, and students.

Beaten and raped on arrival, prisoners who survive this in Sednaya are kept in insanitary and degrading conditions, meant to dehumanise them; routinely tortured with no pretence of extracting a confession; and then put to death. The mass-hangings were conducted in a way that it took ten to fifteen minutes for people to die. If they were still alive after that period, “assistants would pull them down and break their necks.”

The horrors of Sednaya are echoed throughout the entire regime’s prison apparatus, which houses anything up to 200,000 “disappeared” people. It is a bureaucratised system of slaughter with few precedents since the Holocaust.

Going Forward

Today and tomorrow in Brussels, there is a European Union meeting about Syria, where the announced terms are “humanitarian support” to Syria, “supporting the political talks in Geneva” that would ostensibly transition Assad out, and “get[ting] ready for the post-conflict moment.” Staunching the flow of refugees that has destabilised and radicalised European politics is the key concern for a number of powerful voices, however, and the quickest route to that, some believe, is accepting Assad remaining—and even channelling “reconstruction” cash to the regime that will likely be syphoned into counterinsurgency operations.

Late last year the regime began running an influencing campaign—inviting visible individuals to Damascus, for example—and trying to convince them and their readers that the real suffering in Syria was caused by the sanctions imposed on Assad and his criminal associates. The idea was to remove the legal restrains to Western cash flowing to Damascus. This was buttressed, after the regime coalition’s unmerciful conquest of Aleppo City in December, by an attempt to portray this as a “final victory,” with the war winding down and Assad firmly in control, the only option for those who wanted to rebuild Syria.

It was untrue. Assad, Iran, and Russia have been unable to defend majority cities like Homs and Damascus from guerrilla attacks, and the insurgency has launched full-scale, near-simultaneous offensives in Deraa, Damascus, and Hama since then. The regime coalition’s one military advance since December, in Palmyra, would have been impossible without the US-led Coalition. But the political gains of the regime coalition were very real: the West had adjusted its terms of reference to include Assad remaining in Damascus. Now this.

In 2013, Assad gassed Ghouta on the day the UN inspectors arrived to investigate his previous chemical atrocities. That today’s attack overlaps with the start of the EU meeting is unlikely to be coincidental. It is a challenge, a statement—that, just as with the last time, Assad operates with complete impunity, perhaps even with the support of the international community, and in either case nobody will be coming to the defence of Syria’s population, so they should surrender and accept his rule. That it bolsters the hand of al-Qaeda and Daesh, who decidedly will not accept this, is not coincidental either: it gives Assad the enemies he always wanted.

Perhaps this time the West will change course and exact a serious price from Assad for his criminal conduct. Maybe it will be decided that a petty tyrant has humiliated the West one time too many and that Russia’s and Iran’s reckless international statecraft in supporting the Assad regime should cease being cost-free. Nobody who has watched the conflict this far would bet on it, though. 

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.