UN investigators are looking into reports the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on at least two rebel-held towns in recent days. The reports mark at least the sixth time the regime of President Bashar Assad has used such weapons against civilian population centers.
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said Tuesday it had received multiple reports “that bombs allegedly containing weaponized chlorine have been used in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib and Douma in eastern Ghouta.” The allegation is likely to further increase tensions between the U.S. and Russia at the UN Security Council, where both countries are permanent, veto-wielding members. The U.S. complains that Russia, which backs the Assad regime, blocks any meaningful action against the Syrian leader’s use of internationally prohibited weapons.
“It’s a true tragedy that Russia has sent us back to square one in the effort to end chemical weapons use in Syria,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN said Monday at the Security Council. “But we will not cease in our efforts to know the truth of the Assad regime and ensure that that truth is known and acted on by the international community.” The remarks echoed those made by Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, in late January, after another incident in which Assad was accused of using chemical weapons. Tillerson said: “Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in east Ghouta [the Damascus suburb where the attacks took place] and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria.” Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War in October 2015 decisively tilted the conflict in Assad’s favor.
The chemical attacks keep coming despite an Obama-era agreement with Russia, struck in 2013, on the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons. Under that deal, Syria agreed to eliminate its chemical-weapons stockpile. News reports at the time said Syria had 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin, and VX, the nerve agent. International inspectors say Syria has largely destroyed the stockpiles it said it had—though there continue to be complaints about the pace of Syria’s compliance. But that agreement did not include chlorine because the Assad regime hadn’t added it to a list it submitted to international monitors of the chemical weapons it possessed. The most recent attacks were all reportedly chlorine-based.
Jean Pascal Zanders, who heads The Trench, an organization that studies disarmament and security issues, told me that part of the problem is that chlorine has non-weapons applications like purifying water. He said he believes that Assad’s use of chlorine “probably started as an opportunistic use of a toxic chemical. … Then later on, a more dedicated production system was set up particularly with respect to designing barrel bombs and other types of projectiles to disseminate chlorine in larger quantities.” Although chlorine wasn’t included on the Syrian list given to inspectors, the use of chlorine-based weapons is still a violation of Syria’s commitment to the chemical weapons convention.
“You can’t get a worse violation of the treaty than doing that,” Zanders said.
Assad’s continued use of these weapons once again calls into question the effectiveness of the pact to rid Syria of chemical weapons, and indeed President Obama’s broader policy toward Syria.
The “deal to disarm Assad of his chemical weapons was a failure,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic last April, after Assad was accused of using sarin gas against civilians in an attack that prompted retaliation from the Trump administration. “It was not a complete failure, in that stockpiles were indeed removed, but Assad kept enough of these weapons to allow him to continue murdering civilians with sarin gas. The argument that Obama achieved comprehensive WMD disarmament without going to war is no longer, as they say in Washington, operative.”
Obama’s policy toward Syria will perhaps be best remembered for his failure to enforce his metaphorical “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. When Assad used sarin against civilians in August 2013, Obama, who had resisted striking Assad directly, opted instead for the deal with Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. But when last April Assad used sarin gas again, Trump showed little hesitation in using force in reply. That strike—and the threat of the use of more force—has not stopped the chlorine attacks, however.
Much has changed in Syria since last April’s U.S. military strike on Assad’s forces: for one, ISIS has been defeated; as a result, Assad is more firmly in charge of many of the country’s major population centers, though with Russian and Iranian support. As the international community tries to negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict, Assad’s use of conventional weapons on civilian targets such as hospitals and residential neighborhoods is also a priority. Those attacks have killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Whether the attacks—conventional or otherwise—stop in some kind of peace deal is a different question from whether they will be punished. In the case of chemical attacks, there is no real precedent for accountability. “No war in which there’s been a chemical warfare [has ever resulted in] international prosecution of chemical warfare,” Zanders said. “It didn’t happen after the first world war, didn’t happen after the second world war, the Japanese in China. It hasn’t happened after the Iran-Iraq war. So that’s the sad reality we have to deal with.”