Chemical arms massacre could be turning point in Syrian war

Developments had led Assad to believe he was immune from any international censure.

Toxic war. A Syrian man from Idlib is carried by Turkish medics wearing chemical protective suits to a hospital in the border town of Reyhanli in Turkey, on April 4th. (Reuters)

2017/04/09 Issue: 101 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche

Beirut - The slaughter in northern Syria of at least 87 men, women and children in a chemical weapons attack that the United States and other major powers have blamed on the regime of President Bashar As­sad is likely to supercharge efforts to end the 6-year-old conflict that so far have been notable for their fail­ure.

The atrocity that took place at Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, a region widely controlled by anti- Assad rebels and jihadists, appeared to be spurring global powers to do more to halt a conflict that has spawned the greatest humanitarian crisis since the second world war. US President Donald Trump retali­ated on April 7th with a barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that blasted the Syrian Air Force’s Al Sh­ayat base in Homs province, which the Americans said was where the Khan Sheikhoun attack was launched — the first direct US action against the Damascus regime .

The Syrian Observatory for Hu­man Rights, a Britain-based organi­sation that monitors the conflict through a network of activists, and other groups said the chemical weapons, believed to include the deadly nerve agent sarin and chlo­rine, were dropped on Khan Sheik­houn by Syrian Air Force Sukhoi jets in a 6am raid on April 4th.

The France-based Doctors with­out Borders, whose physicians treated the victims, said those at­tacked were exposed to “at least two chemical agents”, a nerve agent and chlorine.

The Assad regime has been re­peatedly accused of using chlorine in air and artillery attacks on rebel-held areas. The Islamic State (ISIS) is also known to use chlorine in its operations.

Witnesses to the April 4th raid described how entire families were found dead in their beds. Survivors were convulsed by spasms and dis­played other symptoms character­istic of poisoning by nerve agents, such as pupils shrunk to the size of pinpricks, foaming at the mouth and extreme breathlessness.

Sarin is colourless and odourless and was discovered by Nazi scien­tists in 1938. It attacks the nervous system and a few drops can be le­thal. When it is weaponised in liquid form, it is usually delivered in rock­ets or shells that disperse it as an aerosol when they hit the ground.

The Syrian regime denied it used chemical weapons in the April 4th attack, claiming instead that its mis­siles and bombs blew up a “terrorist warehouse” of chemical weapons components.

That suggestion was swiftly shot down by Western authorities on the grounds that it was highly unlikely rebel forces would possess the ca­pabilities to produce sarin, which is difficult to manufacture, and that exploding bombs would have de­stroyed those ingredients instanta­neously rather than unleashed them into the air.

The air strikes were launched only days after the Trump administration announced it was abandoning the long-standing goal, embraced by the previous administration, of forcing Assad to step down as Syrian presi­dent and focusing on crushing ISIS.

There is speculation that this en­couraged Assad to believe that with his regime secured by a string of bat­tlefield victories, thanks to Russian air power and Iranian ground forces since September 2015 and shielded against censure in the UN Security Council by Russia and China, he was immune from any international cen­sure.

In February, Russia and China ve­toed a Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syrian officials and commanders accused of being behind chlorine gas attacks on villages in 2014 and 2015.

French Foreign Minister Jean- Marc Ayrault questioned whether the chemical attack on Khan Sheik­houn was Assad’s way of testing the Trump administration on his status and urged Washington to clarify its position on the Syrian leader.

Syrian opposition leaders had no doubts that the Khan Sheikhoun slaughter was a “direct conse­quence” of the Trump administra­tion’s statements regarding Assad.

Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons has left him badly isolated apart from his Russian and Iranian allies, who have their own strate­gic imperatives in Syria, and do not necessarily hinge on his longev­ity, which open new possibilities for ending the Syrian war.

In 2013, Assad’s regime was ac­cused of using sarin against the op­position-held East Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus that, by US count, killed nearly 1,400 people, mainly civilians.

That was the deadliest chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hus­sein, archenemy of the Assad dy­nasty in Damascus, wiped out more than 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children in Halabja in eastern Iraq in an air and artillery bombard­ment on March 16th, 1988, part of his genocidal war on Iraq’s rebel­lious Kurdish minority.

To avoid threatened US military action by the administration of then-president Barack Obama, As­sad agreed to a Russian compromise proposal to surrender his stockpile of chemical agents totalling 1,000 tonnes, the largest in the Middle East.

However, he is widely believed to have cheated on the deal and hidden significant quantities of chemical materials and retained the facilities for weaponising them.

Rebel forces claim that in recent weeks the regime has used toxic substances — including chlorine — several times in the central prov­ince of Hama, where Assad’s forces have regained most of the territory they lost in a jihadist-led offensive in March.

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

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