Chemical Weapons Mystery: Did Assad Attack with Chlorine (and Sarin)?
Perhaps such claims seem plausible to Moscow because its own propaganda machine has employed actors, and used production stills from war movies and screenshots from video games, in media reports claiming to depict real-world atrocities. But these ploys are less convincing than the dozens of shaky videos coming out of Syria.
In the place of this disingenuous theater of denial, a more honest discussion might begin with the cruel fact that relentless bombardment by conventional artillery and air-dropped bombs are daily killing more Syrian civilians than chemical weapons. One image that will linger is a photograph (too gruesome to link to here) of the aftermath in a school playground in Ghouta after it was struck by a Nerpa cluster munition fired by a Syrian Army 240-millimeter mortar, the largest weapon of its type in active service, while the students were lining up for class.
In addition to deliberate attacks by Russia and Syria on civilian targets, U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS forces and Turkish bombardments targeting Kurdish separatists, have also caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
Taken together, some may question why hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths due to “conventional” weapons are deemed less morally dubious than those killed in chemical attacks.
A second consideration is that, as a result of Iranian and Russian military support, the Assad regime is close to defeating its most determined foes in the Syrian opposition, as evidenced by its capture of Douma just twenty-four hours after the chemical attack on April 7. The only major remaining rebel-held territory is in besieged Idlib Province. While Assad’s government also does not control large territories in the north and east held by Kurdish, Turkish-allied and ISIS forces, these groups do not pose an existential threat to Assad. Thus, it is hard to envision a scenario where Assad’s hold on power would be truly threatened by all but the largest-scale intervention.
However, the proximate issue remains that of upholding the general international consensus not to employ chemical weapons, as established by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. This widely observed arms-control regime is weakened when the Syrian government repeatedly gasses its own citizens after signing on to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.
Western countries have already effectively chosen to ignore the Syrian military’s frequent use of chlorine-gas canisters against rebel-held communities. However, as both the symptoms and the number of fatalities in Douma are suggestive of more lethal chemical agents that the Syrian government supposedly disposed of years earlier, the new violations are harder to overlook.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.