Syria’s Assad regime has once again used banned chemical weapons to inflict mass casualties on civilians.
On April 4, Syrian Air Force jets bombed the Syrian town of Idlib. The U.S. State Department said banned chemical weapons were used in the attack. White House press secretary Sean Spicer blamed the Assad regime and didn’t mince words: “Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” Then he added “These heinous acts are a consequence of the past administration’s (Obama Administration’s) weakness and irresolution.”
The heinous acts caused immense and immediate suffering. Within hours of the attack, internet websites and social media sources linked to gruesome video imagery depicting gasping and flailing men, women and children. In other videos, victims foamed at the mouth.
The symptoms are those human beings experience when exposed to a nerve agent — “nerve gas” being the colloquial term. Sarin is the likely culprit. Sarin is a non-persistent nerve agent typically released as an aerosol, a fine spray released by an exploding bomb, rocket or artillery shell. Sarin is very deadly.
How many people were killed and wounded? No one is quite sure. 58 dead and over 300 injured are the most common estimates in current reports. However, one medical aid group working in the area said the death toll is substantially higher. Suffering victims continued to jam Idlib’s hospitals and aid stations.
For what it’s worth, the Assad regime dismissed news of the nerve agent attack as “fabricated allegations.”
I think we can expect the death toll to rise. On August 21, 2013, the Syrian government used barrage rockets carrying sarin in a devastating attack on Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. Initial reports said 300 to 500 dead. The final toll exceeded 1,200.
The Assad regime ordered the use of chemical weapons on Ghouta. In so doing, it clearly violated President Barack Obama’s now infamous August 2012 “red line” forbidding the use of chemical weapons against civilians by Assad’s forces. Obama was saying he would not permit a war crime of that magnitude on his watch.
But when Assad crossed the red line, Obama failed to take punitive military action. Obama failed to support his strong words, exhibiting what Sean Spicer identified as “weakness and irresolution.”
Obama tried to obscure his fecklessness by making a deal with Vladimir Putin. Russia would assume control Syrian chemical weapons then move the weapons out of Syria and destroy them. That deal didn’t alter the bottom line to the red line: Assad committed a war crime forbidden by an American president, and did so with impunity.
Syrians have suffered scores of chemical attacks since 2013, many involving chlorine. In March 2017, two attacks occurred where Assad’s forces allegedly used sarin.
Obama’s reliance on the Kremlin to control and remove chemical weapons utterly failed. In April, I participated in a State Department media background briefing (conducted by phone). The briefing senior official harshly criticized Russia and Iran. “Russia and Iran are the self-proclaimed guarantors for the Syrian regime to adhere to a (negotiated) cease-fire…” Though Russia says it had nothing to do with the Idlib bombing, “that’s not the issue. The issue is an apparent inability or unwillingness to hold the (Assad) regime to its own commitments and to account.” In light of the chemical attack, Russia and Iran “will have a lot to answer for.”
They do indeed. Demanding Russia and Iran answer for facilitating a major war crime by their Syrian client is not drawing a red line. But Bashar al-Assad knows that the Trump Administration is making it clear its Syrian chemical weapons policy no longer relies on Russia. Assad will conclude a punitive strike on his regime is now a possibility.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.