A Real Red Line in Syria

On March 19, 2013 and in April 2013 the forces of President Bashar Assad used nerve gas, the toxic chemical sarin, against the rebel forces attempting to overthrow him. Again on August 21, 2013, the sarin nerve agent was used and hundreds were killed in one morning by attacks in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.

As a result, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations arranged a disarmament deal according to which Syria’s chemical weapons would be destroyed. Russia was the main sponsor of the compromise deal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, a deal that helped avoid any Western action against the regime for using such weapons. By most reports of the OPCW, Syria has been shipping out the deadly weapons, and so far 86% of its declared stockpile of 1,300 metric tons has been removed. Syria agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and also agreed on the basis of the U.S.-Russian agreement of September 14, 2013 to the destruction of all its arsenal of those weapons by mid 2014

However, the problem still exists because the compromise deal did not include chlorine or ammonia, enabling the Assad regime to bring cunning to a new pinnacle. It has kept producing so called “non-classic” non-conventional weapons that avoid the provisions of the CWC.  Syrian forces linked to the Assad regime have used these chemical weapons on at least 30 occasions when they were tactically deployed with mortars and short-range rockets.

Syrian forces have used chemical weapons at least 15 times in the last three months on the suburbs of Damascus, in Hama, and in Idlib. The most significant incident has been in April 2014 the use of a toxic industrial chemical, probably chlorine, in the small town of Kfar Zeita, with 20,000 residents, about 125 miles north of Damascus. A number of bombs in canisters were dropped on residential areas by helicopters, killing and wounding civilians. Though the evidence of government strikes seems clear, the Assad regime accused the rebel group, the al-Qaeda Nusra Front, of releasing the chlorine gas in the town, though the rebels do not have aircraft capable of such action.

The cunning Assad has taken advantage of the fact that chlorine is not a banned chemical agent because it has industrial uses. In the Russian-US Agreement in 2013, chlorine was not designated a priority chemical that Syria was required to declare. However, its use as a weapon is banned under the 1925 Geneva Chemical Weapons Convention. This Convention bans the use in war of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases… and all analogous liquids, materials, or devices.” This ban resulted from the experience of World War I when the German Army used gas for the first time in the second battle of Ypres in 1915, an attack that killed 30,000 British and French soldiers. Syria signed the Convention in 1968. However, this Convention did not refer to producing or stockpiling poison gas.

The question is whether the new Syrian use of chemical weapons will be another “red line” and whether the Assad regime will suffer any punishment. Will it lead to any, or further sanctions, by the international community against the regime? Less than two years ago, on August 20, 2012, President Barack Obama issued a warning that a red line would be drawn if the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria made any attempt to move or use its chemical weapons. The Obama Administration would change its “calculus” if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” All rational people agree that Syria should be held accountable for using chemical weapons. The problem is, should the response be limited or more potent, including a military one?

President Obama has made clear he prefers action by the international community, not unilateral action. The United Nations Security Council, as always, has expressed “grave concern,” but that concern is about “alleged reports about the use of chlorine gas.” At this point no move has been made to investigate the authenticity of the reports. The Security Council appears unaware of the photos and news items revealing the incidents of helicopters dropping canisters on residential areas, and the presence of mustard gas containers in a number of chemical weapons storage and production sites. It even maintains that the reports of attacks are “unsubstantiated,” though evidence exists in images of treatment in local field hospitals, clearly showing Syrian citizens being fed oxygen to alleviate suffering from suffocation, muscle contractions, and choking.

It is time for a real red line to be drawn to deal with Syrian inhumane barbarism. The international community should respond forcefully against the Assad regime. Perhaps one might even envisage that the morally righteous individuals and groups who have so far not condemned this savagery might end their silence. The world looks forward to that condemnation by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker, the World Council of Churches, American Studies Association, the Irish Teachers’ Union, and Oxfam International, who are so busy boycotting Israel that they remain silent on this issue. Can these people and organizations really believe that boycotting a factory outside of Jerusalem making carbonated products and employing hundreds of Palestinians is a more crucial issue for the survival of civilization and humanity than the use of poison gas by some Arabs on other Arabs?

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.