Syrian Chemical Attack Generates Rage, Resignation

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

April 28, 2017

U.S. officials believe that the Syrian regime unleashed a brutal chemical weapons attack against civilians on April 4th in rebel-held Idlib province. While the Bashar al Assad government has denied responsibility, few outside of Moscow questions its culpability. U.S. President Donald Trump, in a sudden policy shift, spoke forcefully against Assad and authorized the bombing of a Syrian airstrip where the chemical attack was allegedly launched. Still, the general view in the region is one of resignation, with many doubting that much will change.

There are various opinions on how much of a “game changer” the Syrian chemical attack will be. However, Al Monitor’s Amberin Zaman believes that Assad’s actions have raised the ire of the United States and provided rhetorical ammunition for countries that have argued for regime change: “Turkey has long lobbied the United States to act decisively to topple the ‘murderous’ Assad regime, but its appeals have fallen on deaf ears…. The Trump administration, much like its predecessors has made it clear that its overarching priority in Syria is not regime change but to defeat the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked groups that control much of Idlib. …. But the attack on Khan Sheikhoun may have a game-changing effect. The top UN humanitarian official in Syria, Jan Egeland, called the attack a possible ‘watershed moment.’ Trump told reporters, ‘I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me.’… Some analysts believe the president’s comments signal a shift in U.S. policy. But after five years of constant disappointment, the Syrian opposition is not holding its breath. Mohammed Ghanem, a spokesman for the Syrian American Council, told Al-Monitor, ‘We cannot allow ourselves to become too optimistic. Yes there is a change in tone; yes it’s positive. But we need to be careful.’ … Either way, the crisis in Syria will remain a huge challenge for Turkey, which has paid the heaviest price for the conflict second only to the Syrian people themselves.”

In fact, as a recent National editorial makes clear, it is still unknown what President Trump will do, if anything, beyond the weekend bombing of a Syrian regime airstrip: “This attack confirms a simple and frightening reality: as this conflict continues, the nature of the fighting will become more deadly. But there is another debate that this attack has once again brought to the forefront of the international conversation regarding Syria: the future of Bashar Al Assad…. The finger of blame, however, points in one direction. In Syria, only the Assad regime possesses both chemical weapons and the means to deliver them, and there can be little doubt that the Syrian president has once again shown he has little compunction in killing his own people to cling on to power.… For the past few months, the mood music surrounding Syria has been one of realpolitik: as recently as this week, the White House was saying that Mr. Al Assad’s presence as Syria’s head of state was a political reality that would have to be worked with. After Tuesday’s attack, the Trump administration blamed Barack Obama’s ‘weakness’ in failing to deal with the threat of the regime’s chemical weapons… Now that he is president, the question arises of how he proposes to project strength…. the international community, if those words are to have any meaning, cannot watch a head of state subject his own people to the agony of death by chemical weapons, and simply do nothing.”

Turkish commentator Murat Yetkin, writing for Hurriyet Daily News, suggests that much of the inaction at the United Nations and in various capitals around the world is due to the fact that the situation in Syria presents a “no-win” scenario for all parties involved: “The United Nations failed on April 6 to produce a resolution for the second time in two days regarding the Syrian gas attack on April 4…. Russia denounced the incident as ‘monstrous’ but also stood by Syria’s ‘anti-terrorist operations’ and accused the United States of not being ‘objective’ in its strong reaction… The UN made a call on four countries as major actors in Syria, namely the U.S., Russia, Turkey and Iran, to help secure a truce for at least 72 hours to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to trapped civilians. The recent statement by the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, about the unsustainability of the situation in Syria signals a radical change in the U.S. attitude; perhaps a ruthless dictator will no longer be tolerated just because he is not an Islamist. Trump’s words implying an intervention without the consent of the UN — due to the Russian veto — could change the equation…. But the recent developments and fragmentation of the country into ethnically, religiously and ideologically polarized sections brings about the question of the sustainability of Syria as a country. It seems it will not be possible to solve the Syrian problem unless some radical steps are taken, regardless of whether there is a temporary truce or not.”

Arab News’s Baria Alamuddin characterizes the inability of the UN Security Council to provide adequate protection for Syrian civilians as a “farce,” and holds its members responsible for what is going on in Syria: “Power comes with obligation. Negligent officials in civilized nations who fail to protect their citizens should be held accountable. Who will hold UN Security Council members to account for negligence for failing to prevent massacres of hundreds of thousands of Syrians…? Even if this dysfunctional Council issues condemnation, are we supposed to applaud? Are those Syrians lying in hospital with lungs shredded by chemical burns supposed to feel vindicated? Such a lethargic response is beyond parody.…American leaders wonder why rogue states provoke them. Syria is the reason why power-hungry dictators feel emboldened…. Because of Syria, Israel knows it can get away with murder. North Korea knows it can pursue its nuclear and ballistic programs. The global system is too dysfunctional to act…The failure of the Security Council’s permanent members to take their conflict-resolution mandate seriously in Syria, again and again, allows militias, terrorist cells, separatists, warlords, rogue states and jihadists to proliferate with impunity worldwide.”

Al Assad’s chemical attack on his own people has elicited a strong response from some of his neighbors, including former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who, in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, expresses concerns about the seeming impunity with which Assad acts, although she stops short of calling for military action in Syria: “So let’s talk not only about [our] moral obligation, but also about interests — because taking action in Syria is also in our interest. It is the common interest of the free world to free its citizens from the threats of terror and violence. Rogue states and terrorist actors are watching what is happening – and the message that world is sending them will influence their behavior …. People die in wars, but even in wars there are laws, rules of engagement, and things that are not done. Unconventional weapons are beyond the pale and unlike collateral damage in a battle, what we see in Syria is a deliberate attack on civilians, war crimes that have the makings of crimes against humanity. Silence and complacency give not only Assad a license to kill, but all radical terrorist actors in the region. An international coalition must address the situation; its immediate task is completing the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.”

But Haaretz News’s Anshel Pfeffer expresses her dissatisfaction with such Israeli  opinions, calling them “callous.” Ms. Pfeffer goes on to accuse such commentators of failing the memory of Israel’s own Holocaust victims: “As the footage of motionless, suffocated children was beamed Tuesday around the world and politicians, including in Israel, rushed to condemn the regime, other Israelis reminded us that this was still a civil war being waged among our enemies, and we were lucky it wasn’t our own children on the receiving end. This may have been a callous response to the horrific pictures, but it was an honest one. It was also the ultimate answer to the question we will once again be asking in two weeks when Israel commemorates its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. How did the world stand aside in silence? You can bet that as the politicians get up to speak at the somber events at Yad Vashem and other memorial sites, they will all mention the scenes in Khan Sheikhoun as further proof that the world remains silent when children are gassed to death… But how many of our politicians will make the logical leap to the realization that this time around we are the world…? Israel’s intelligence services have the most immediate and accurate information on which chemical weapons are being used against Syrian civilians when, how and where…. Those details Tuesday were known to everyone in the Israe

However, for Ahmed Al-Burai there is little hope that the international community will react forcefully enough. In an op-ed for the Daily Sabah, Al-Burai urges them to focus on state-sanctioned acts of terror, rather than exclusively on the Islamic State: “The war on terrorism should initially start with the terror of states. Ironically, however, the U.S.-led coalition that has committed war crimes in Iraq and supported sectarian militias in its intolerant crackdown on other ethnic majorities can’t promote campaigns of human rights and enforcement of international law. The UN has shamelessly been displaying an unprecedented lack of functionality even when it comes to people’s lives. It has demonstrated utter vanity in saving innocent civilians and any sort of humanitarian aid or safe corridors to let them evacuate warring regions. The UN along with the international community have failed the test of humanity and proved to be a mere relic of the gloomy pages of our contemporary history. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is not the first stain on humanity that will not be erased from the world’s collective memory.… Most probably we’ll soon see other horrible images or even other massacres that will be carried out by this demented lunatic regime that wouldn’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to cling onto power and rule over piles of corpses of children and ruins and debris in Syria.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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