- The most recent gas attack in Syria is among a long list of chemical weapons usage in the war
- The Human Rights Watch found 85 cases of verified chemical weapons attacks before the on in April, 2018
- The world has largely ignored most of these
- Trump's recent strikes on the country will do little to deter the use of gas as a weapon
By Ty Joplin
In the early hours of Friday, April 13, U.S. President Donald Trump, in coordination with French and U.K. armed forces, ordered a series of strikes against targets in Syria in apparent retaliation against the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chlorine gas on civilians in Eastern Ghouta.
The strikes were aimed against chemical weapons and logistics facilities throughout Syria, and were condemned by much of the world. Hours later, Syrians were seen dancing on the streets, elated by how light and ineffectual Trump’s strikes were. For his part, Trump tweeted “Mission accomplished!”
This bizarre episode of the Syrian war—a gas attack followed by a series of Trump strikes, gives the impression that gas attacks are rare in the country, and receive an international response with a frenzy of media attention.
Tragically for Syrians, the truth is almost the exact opposite.
Gas attacks are common; they go unpunished and rarely receive any attention. Counter-strikes aimed at deterrence have failed, and Trump quietly already learned when he struck a Syrian airbase in April of last year after hearing that Assad used gas to maime civilians.
Gas Attacks are Common in Syria
A Syrian man and girl flee following a reported government air strike on the rebel-controlled town of Hamouria (AFP/Abdulmonam Eassa)
The recent use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta and Trump’s counter-attack on Syrian chemical facilities has given much of the world the impression that chemical weapon use is often a one-off strategy that receives a strong response.
This is simply false.
The Syrian regime routinely uses chlorine gas as a weapon despite its international ban, and has used sarin gas as well, which is much more lethal than chlorine. Sarin is also banned by Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria acceded to in September 2013. This has not stopped Assad from using it.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on April 4, counting the total number of times chemical weapons were verified by independent inquiries to have been used in Syria. The report found that chlorine, mustard and sarin gas were used 85 times since the start of the Syrian war.
The report was released before the latest gas attack in Douma, making the total verified count 86.
It also admits that, “the total number of actual chemical attacks is likely higher," because it only lists instances of gas that were verified by independent investigative bodies that have limited access to the warzone in Syria.
International response to the use of chemical weapons has been weak and ineffectual, according to the report.
Last year in April, Trump responded to an regime gas attack in Khan Shaykhun by launching 59 missiles on a Syrian airbase. The move failed at neutralizing the airbase and evidently did not deter Assad from continuing to launch gas attacks.
Rather than ordering insular military interventions into Syria, the HRW report recommends to wield the power invested in the official body designated to investigate instances of chemical weapons use (OPCW) and apply collective action and sanctions to Syria to pressure it diplomatically.
“The OPCW should suspend and sanction the Syrian government for its failure to comply with the Convention,” HRW said. It is legally empowered by Article XII of its charter to apply “necessary measures to ensure compliance with this Convention and to redress and remedy any situation which contravenes it.”
In other words, the OPCW is allowed to take collective actions such as sanctions to ensure compliance with international laws on banned weapons, like weaponized gas.
The Mistake of Misunderstanding Gas Attacks in Syria
Sources: Human Rights Watch, OPCW−UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, UN Commission of Inquiry, OPCW Fact−finding Mission in Syria, United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, Amnesty International, & Bellingcat. Note: When sources identified differing numbers of injuries, we used the HRW confirmed number or the lowest estimate. (Human Rights Watch)
Gas attacks in Syria are deployed as a tool by the regime and opposition forces. ISIS also used mustard gas several times throughout the war.
The danger of mis-representing the frequency of chemical attacks, to misportray them as rare and highly specialized episodes, is that it downplays just how cruel and illegal the war in Syria has been so far. With almost 100 reported and verified gas attacks in Syria, and over 50 at the hands of Assad, the war has been consistently catastrophic for Syrians.
To the myriad gas attacks and resulting investigations, substantive measures to prevent their future use have failed.
In fact, the overall violence and terror deployed by the sides involved has been so devastating that Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterrorism director at HRW stated in an interview with Al Bawaba, “There’s no morality in the Middle East right now… I don’t think any these countries have been moral.”
Trying to understand precisely why Trump ordered the series of strikes on April 13 has been a perplexing task.
On April 11, two days before his attack on Syria, Trump tweeted: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
The next day on April 12, the Washington Post published a story that contained a hint at how the current administration’s foreign policy functions.
“A decision or statement is made by the president, and then the principals — Mattis or Pompeo or Kelly — come in and tell him we can’t do it,” one senior administration official told the Washington Post. “When that fails, we reverse-engineer a policy process to match whatever the president said.”
Reverse-engineering a response in Syria may well have happened, given that there appears to be no follow-up, and Trump declared victory shortly after the missiles hit their targets.
In other words, there does not appear to be a long-term strategy from the U.S. to militarily ensure compliance to international conventions banning chemical weapons usage. This is especially true when it comes ensuring opposition forces do not use chemical weapons.
They have been found to be responsible for a substantial chunk of the total gas attacks in Syria, and the U.S. has not responded to them with the same hostility it has to the Assad regime’s deployment of the same tactic.
If the goal is ensuring compliance to international conventions and human rights, selective and isolated strikes have done little.
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