London—Running short of ways to hold off rebels, the Syrian government has once again turned to gas attacks on civilians. The toxin is chlorine, the stuff used to purify drinking water, so is not among the chemicals used in weapons Syria had to destroy in 2013. But the Syrians shouldn’t be using it anyway.
The repeat use of chlorine bombs–they were employed in 2014, too– would seem to go against the spirit if not the letter of Syria’s willingness, in 2013, to destroy its stockpiles of poisons used in bombs, including deadly sarin nerve gas. The government of President Bashar al-Assad did so to avoid possible Western military intervention and under pressure from Russia, which persuaded the regime that to give up the chemicals was the better part of valor.
In 2013, Syria also joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that forbids the use of even chlorine as a weapon.
No matter. On April 17, 2015, the United Nations Security Council viewed a video of children victims of chlorine “barrel bombs.” These are usually dropped from helicopters.
Security Council members were moved to tears, said the American UN ambassador Samantha Power. Someone would be held responsible, she said. Russia wiped away its tears long enough to say that it wasn’t certain the al-Assad government was to blame. That’s all that happened.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters that the US hadn’t confirmed the latest use of chlorine bombs anyway. Though everyone knew al-Assad’s forces had used them in the past, no one did nothing about them then except back people opposed to the regime, he added.
“I think the response, the international response, to the Assad regime’s continued use not only of chlorine as a weapon but its attacks on the Syrian people, which have led to countless deaths and dislocations, have the attention of the international community,” Rathke said.
Al-Assad‘s resort to chemical weapons suggest he is in dire straits. Yesterday, I wrote how he seems to be losing the war through lack of manpower. Chlorine bombs are not useful in open areas, but in closed, urban settings where the government drops them, they can kill indiscriminately.
The problem for the US and allies is that to stop al-Assad’s breaches of international law they would have to intervene militarily. They don’t want to do that. And even support for rebels fighting al-Assad, which they do tepidly, has its downside. The West fears that radical and vicious insurgents from al-Qaeda and Islamic State might win.
So expect periodic use of chemical weapons.
Here is a New York Review of Books guide to Syria’s chlorine use.
Human Rights Watch report on the most recent chlorine attacks.