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On 26 September 2019, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Syrian government forces used chlorine gas during an attack on 19 May in Idlib, as part of their offensive against the last rebel stronghold. The statement was made at a news conference in New York, where Pompeo was attending the United Nations’ General Assembly.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, chemical weapons have been used systematically.
“The Global Public Policy Institute has found that nearly 336 total chemical weapon attacks have occurred, with 89 percent being attributed to the Syrian government and 2 percent being attributed to the Islamic State group,” Noor Nahas, an independent researcher, and analyst focusing on open-source research of the Syrian conflict told Fanack. The Global Public Policy Institute is an independent think tank in Berlin, Germany.
“For the Syrian government, chemical weapons like chlorine work as an effective way of sowing instability and fear, alongside their use of barrel bombs, airstrikes, and napalm attacks, to cause discord and instability in areas they do not control, opening them up for eventual military operations,” he added.
Evidence of the regime’s use of chemical weapons emerged early on in the conflict, but it was the attack carried out in August 2013 on Ghouta, just outside Damascus, that triggered a response from the international community, in particular the United States (US).
The use of chemicals was established as a ‘red line’ by former US President Barack Obama, who ordered a military strike in retaliation, before flip-flopping at the last minute and eventually sealing a deal with Russia instead: the US would not intervene and the international community would work together on a plan to identify and destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles.
Prior to the 2013 attack, the Syrian regime had claimed for decades that it could not join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as long as Israel constituted a threat to its security. It did join the CWC in 2014, however, and under a United Nations Security Council resolution encouraged by the US and Russia, Damascus declared 1,308 metric tons of sulphur mustard agent and precursor agents to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The latter stated in January 2016 that the destruction of the stockpile had been completed.
“Until 2014, the Syrian government was not part of the CWC and produced large quantities of chemical weapons that it had stockpiled,” Nahas said. “These stocks were allegedly completely destroyed under the OPCW-UN programme by 2014, but we’ve seen significant use of chemical weapons since then.”
Collecting evidence to support this claim has not been an easy task. Two main challenges are the ongoing upheaval of war on the one hand and widespread propaganda on the other.
“The conditions of the war make it difficult for officials and fact-finding missions to collect evidence. In many cases, the Syrian government has delayed fact-finding missions’ access to areas,” said Nahas. “There’s also the issue of the noise generated by propaganda and conspiracy theorists around these events, which discredit a lot of resources that journalists and governments could otherwise use to confirm and verify attacks.”
According to the researcher, Russian state-owned media such as Russia Today and Sputnik amplified conspiracy theories.
A case in point is the alleged use of chemical weapons for the attack carried out on 7 April 2018 in Douma, Eastern Ghouta. Although it has been attributed to the Syrian regime, both Damascus and its allies not only denied responsibility but also questioned the veracity of the footage and images. The Russian army claimed to have irrefutable evidence of the United Kingdom’s (UK) direct participation in what is called a ‘provocation’.
According to the accusations, London exerted pressure on the White Helmets – Syria’s civil defense – so they ‘staged’ the symptoms of exposure to chemical agents. According to the White Helmets and the Syrian American Medical Society, 48 people died due to toxic gas and 500 others presented symptoms of exposure to a chemical agent. According to the World Health Organization, at least 43 people died following their exposure to highly toxic chemicals.
“Much of today’s propaganda is well-produced, well-packaged, and easy to consume,” Nahas said. “It provides quick answers, regardless of the truth of those answers, and those not following the day-to-day events of a conflict may be confused. It’s up to journalists and researchers to fight this by presenting the findings and evidence in ways that people not watching conflicts for a living can understand and take in.”
Following the recent confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime in the May 2019 attack, Pompeo declared that the US would continue to exert pressure on Bashar al-Assad‘s regime so it puts an end to violence directed against civilians and takes part in a political and conflict settlement process overseen by the United Nations.
However, the US’ recent withdrawal of its remaining troops from northern Syria seems to confirm its preference for disengagement rather than interventionism in the Middle East. Moreover, Pompeo’s recent announcement is unlikely to prompt any concrete change in the Syrian battlefield. The US troops’ withdrawal also leaves Turkey free to carry out an offensive on this area to dislodge the combatants of the largely Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and put an end to the Kurdish aspirations for self-governance. Despite the alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces – which are dominated by the YPG – and the US to fight the Islamic State, US President Donald Trump is pursuing the withdrawal mile-stone set by Obama and seems to be leaving the fate of the Middle East to regional and local powers and, most importantly, to Russia.
In April 2017, Trump appeared to make a decision that contrasted sharply with his predecessor when he ordered the strike of 59 cruise missiles in Syria in response to a sarin gas attack attributed to the regime in Khan Sheikhoun. A year later, the US, France, and the UK carried out another series of strikes against sites in Syria following the chemical attack on Douma.
In Europe and the US, these interventions were criticized in the name of anti-imperialism. However, as suggested by Perry Cammack from the Carnegie Middle East Center at the time, “The airstrikes will have no real effect on the trajectory of the conflict. The Syrian army will presumably get the message regarding the use of such heinous weapons. But it continues to have impunity regarding its brutal conventional assault against civilians.”
For activist and writer Leila el-Shami, “The US, UK and French intervention [was] less about protecting Syrians from mass atrocity and more about enforcing an international norm that chemical weapons use is unacceptable.” The Syrian regime appears to have no interest in adhering to this norm.