Four years ago, it almost looked as if chemical attacks on Syrian civilians would stop. “We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” declared then-Secretary of State John Kerry on Meet the Press in 2014. Kerry was referring to Bashar al-Assad’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons which, under a 2013 deal struck by the Obama administration following a sarin nerve gas attack that brought the U.S. to the brink of striking Syrian government forces, were dismantled and shipped out of the country.
But there were two important and deadly loopholes. The first was that Assad did not declare everything—a reality that Kerry acknowledged publicly, including in a farewell memo to staff, in which he wrote that “unfortunately other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly against the Syrian people.” The second was that chlorine gas, which has legitimate civilian uses, was not part of the deal. The Syrian American Medical Society and the White Helmets civil-defense group have documented 200 chemical attacks in Syria since 2012, many involving chlorine. On Saturday, the group alleged a particularly gruesome attack in the besieged city of Douma, which has reportedly killed dozens and injured hundreds. It remains unclear exactly what chemical weapon was involved in the alleged attack.
The deal’s failure to prevent attacks like this was evident even before last April, when sarin gas killed roughly 100 people in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. By then, Assad’s renewed campaign of chemical attacks, involving the use of chlorine in barrel bombs, was well underway. But sarin was explicitly prohibited, and those weapons were supposed to be out of the country. The deal, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote at the time, “was not a complete failure, in that [chemical-weapons] 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.”
What the deal did achieve, according to Avril Haines, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, was to force Syria to declare 1,300 tons of chemical weapons, which were then destroyed. “This was a major achievement and one that has put us in a better position to address the threat posed by [Assad] … we have learned a great deal about Syria's holdings and capabilities” because the regime was effectively forced to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, she wrote in an email.
If all this added up to something short of disarmament, Trump’s strikes on regime targets following last April’s sarin attack haven’t achieved it either. The seeming logic of that response—that where diplomacy had failed, punishment might succeed—also fell apart quickly, as reports began emerging soon afterward that Assad was once again using chlorine gas against civilians. The United States did not strike Assad again in retaliation. And on Saturday, the Syrian American Medical Society and the White Helmets noted that dozens of victims in Douma were exhibiting the symptoms of chemical exposure—including seizures and foaming at the mouth.
President Trump has labeled the event “an atrocity,” blaming the Obama administration for declining to enforce its declared “red line” against chemical weapons use in 2013. But if anything, until this morning it looked like the Trump administration was more interested in extricating itself from Syria entirely. The attacks follow a strange few days in Washington, as the president stated his desire to get out of Syria “very soon;” his advisers insisted the U.S. was staying to finish the job of defeating the Islamic State; and the White House tried to resolve the contradiction by insisting that American troops would stay in Syria until ISIS was gone, an outcome that was rapidly coming to pass.
Syrian civilians appeared virtually nowhere in that discussion; nowhere was the U.S. mission defined as protecting them. As when a sarin attack killed a thousand people in Ghouta in 2013; as when another one killed roughly 100 last April; as with this latest reported attack; the administration seems to take up that public discussion seriously only when dozens of people—men, women, children—have already choked to death in their homes.