Tuesday, Syria launched a chemical gas attack on a northern area held by rebels. Pope Francis has called the attack an “unacceptable massacre,” according to the New York Times. And an unnamed state department official has called it a war crime.
More than 70 people have died because of the attacks and nearly a third of those casualties were children. As many as 500 people may have been injured or affected by the gas, according CNN*. The scenes were gruesome as people were overtaken by the colorless odorless gas, asphyxiated, some literally foaming at the mouth.
It is just the latest atrocity in a war that has shocked the world’s conscience – but unlike his predecessor, who drew what he called a red line against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and did nothing – President Donald Trump’s realpolitik, as the New York Times puts it, positions the United States as willing to tolerate the Syrian strongman. President Bashar al-Assad’s elimination is not a priority, according to the state department. Damascus blames the rebels.
But President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin struck a deal with Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons stockpile in 2013. And Texas played a role there – a facility in Port Arthur was tasked with destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
In January 2016, the international organization overseeing that process declared mission accomplished.
Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association says it’s possible Assad maintained a small capability or lied about his chemical weapons program ot the international community.
“The 2013 agreement certainly was a positive step because the Assad regime did eliminate many of its most dangerous chemicals and it signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention,” she says. “Which means that it’s now bound by international law not to use chemical weapons, not to produce them and not to stockpile them.
“Now it’s clear from the most recent attack that President Assad has not abided by those commitments – that he did use what’s likely Sarin gas against civilians … and that the international community needs to respond harshly.”
The United Nations Security Council is meeting Wednesday to discuss taking stronger action against Assad, with the U.S., France and Britain calling for an investigation and condemning the attack. But Russia is suggesting the strike hit a terrorist warehouse and the resolution is “unacceptable.”
“Typically Russia has shielded the Assad regime from further investigation into allegations of chemical weapons attacks over the past several years and they’ve prevented the security council from taking the stronger action against Assad,” Davenport says. “The United States really needs to stand up to Russia to work with other countries, like the U.K. and France, that have condemned Assad’s use of chemical weapons and find a way to continue to put pressure on Assad and send the message that these types of attacks will not be tolerated.”
Davenport says Trump faces a wide variety of foreign policy challenges – including North Korea – but it’s time for him to step up.
“This attack used a weapon of mass destruction against a civilian population, many would say – me included – that that’s a war crime,” she says. “It requires a strong response. And if the international community allows Assad to continue to use chemical weapons against civilian populations, it sends the wrong message to states and non-state actors that these types of attacks will go unpunished and that’s not a precedent that the U.S. should be willing to accept.”
Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.
*The audio references a story from AFP, but the information was taken from CNN.