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Chemical warfare continues in Syria, unpunished

Reuters/Carlo Allegri
Protesters hold up signs during a demonstration marking the one-year anniversary of the chemical attacks in Syria, at Times Square in New York August 22, 2014.
  • Elliott Abrams
By Elliott Abrams

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In Sep. 2013 the Obama administration congratulated itself on an agreement, brokered by Russia, that supposedly ended the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria. For the killings by using sarin gas Syria’s president Assad was not punished in any way, but he was supposedly going to turn over all his CW and the possibility of a recurrence was thus ended.

President Obama said this:

I welcome the progress made between the United States and Russia through our talks in Geneva, which represents an important, concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria’s chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed. This framework provides the opportunity for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in a transparent, expeditious, and verifiable manner, which could end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to the region and the world. The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments….
Following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 men, women, and children on August 21, I decided that the United States must take action to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons, degrade their ability to use them, and make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use….
The use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere. We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children.

Critics, and I was one, believed that President Obama had done immense damage to American prestige and security by backing away from his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Defenders of the president said he had removed the possibility of using CW, which was a great achievement.

The returns are in, I’m afraid. The Guardian in London has just reported this:

Syrian civil defence workers and doctors have documented 35 barrel bomb attacks where chlorine was allegedly used since 16 March – the latest of which was on Tuesday near the former regime stronghold of Jisr al-Shughour – with more than 1,000 injuries and nine deaths. More than 20 civil defence workers have been wounded in rescue operations…The chlorine campaign began just over a week after the UN security council passed a resolution under chapter 7 of the UN charter condemning its use. A fact-finding mission by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is charged with destroying Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, concluded that chlorine was used in 2014 in Syrian villages, but did not ascribe responsibility.
The Assad regime’s backers in the security council deny it is responsible for chlorine use, but the government is the only faction in the Syrian civil war with aeroplanes.
[Raed Saleh, the head of a Syrian civil defence force called the White Helmets] said: “This dithering in not referring the regime to the international criminal court gives it an opportunity to kill more civilians with these weapons.”
But the Obama administration, which once regarded chemical weapons as a red line, is unlikely to press Assad on the latest chlorine attacks. Though Obama said the US was assisting investigators who were looking into the chlorine allegations, he stunned observers at a press conference in Camp David by saying chlorine was not “historically listed as a chemical weapon”.
“It is true that we’ve seen reports about the use of chlorine in bombs that had the effect of chemical weapons,” Obama said. “Chlorine itself historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon but when it is used in this fashion can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.”
Wissam Tarif, from the advocacy group Avaaz, which has campaigned for a humanitarian no-fly zone in Syria, said Obama’s statement amounted to a green light for the regime to continue its alleged chlorine campaign.
“Syrian regime forces have been raining down chlorine bombs on civilian neighbourhoods almost every day since Obama’s Camp David statement, and it is no coincidence,” said Tarif.

Here’s what the president said at Camp David on May 14:

With respect to Syria, my commitment was to make sure that Syria was not using chemical weapons, and mobilizing the international community to assure that that would not happen. And, in fact, we positioned ourselves to be willing to take military action. The reason we did not was because Assad gave up his chemical weapons. That’s not speculation on our part. That, in fact, has been confirmed by the organization internationally that is charged with eliminating chemical weapons.
And I don’t think that there are a lot of folks in the region who are disappointed that Assad is no longer in possession of one of the biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons of any country on Earth. Those have been eliminated.
It is true that we’ve seen reports about the use of chlorine in bombs that have the effect of chemical weapons. Chlorine itself, historically, has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical. And so we’re working with the international community to investigate that.
And, in fact, if we have the kinds of confirmation that we need, we will, once again, work with the international community and the organization charged with monitoring compliance by the Syrian government, and we will reach out to patrons of Assad like Russia to put a stop to it.

The fact is that Assad is still using poison gas–chlorine. Chlorine was used by the Germans in 1915, and here we are a day after Memorial Day. What a fitting time it would be for the president to stop hiding behind rhetoric about how “we’ve seen reports” and a “prohibited use of that particular chemical” and “work with the international community” and “reach out” to Russia. He drew a red line, and pulled back from it; he agreed to a deal brokered by Russia to save Assad; Assad is still killing his own people with chemical weapons.

That deal did not “put a stop to it” and instead weakened the United States. Syrians are still dying from poison gas attacks by their own government. We have the right to expect a great deal more from Mr. Obama than pettifoggery about how “chlorine itself, historically, has not been listed as a chemical weapon.” Tell that to the Syrians whose parents or children are dying after poison-gas attacks.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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