Apr 5th 2017
ON APRIL 4th a chemical attack struck the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, a province in northern Syria currently controlled by an alliance of rebel groups, including a powerful faction linked to al-Qaeda. At least 72 people, including 20 children, died, according to doctors and a Syrian monitoring group. The World Health Organisation said victims appeared to display symptoms that tally with the use of a deadly nerve agent such as sarin (as opposed to, say, a less powerful one such as chlorine).
One young boy was filmed slowly suffocating on the ground, his chest heaving and his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Photographs show dead children lined up in rows on the floor or piled in heaps in the back of a vehicle, their clothes ripped from them by rescuers who used hoses to try to wash the chemicals from their bodies. Other images show victims foaming from their mouths or writhing on the ground as they struggle for air. Hours after the attack began, witnesses say regime warplanes circled back over the area and dropped bombs on a clinic treating survivors.
After six years of war, international reaction to the attack followed a predictable pattern. The Syrian government swiftly denied dropping chemical weapons. Russia, its ally, said a Syrian air strike had hit a rebel held weapons stockpile, releasing deadly chemicals into the air. Leaders in the West condemned the regime, issuing hollow statements about the need for “accountability” while avoiding any suggestion of how that might be achieved.
The probable passivity of the West ought not to come as much of a surprise. When the Syrian government gassed to death more than 1,400 of its own people on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013 it seemed inevitable that America would respond by launching air strikes against the regime. One week after the attack—the deadliest use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds in 1988—John Kerry delivered one of his most bellicose speeches as secretary of state, arguing the case for American military action in Syria. “It matters if the world speaks out…and then nothing happens,” Mr Kerry said.
Yet nothing, at least militarily, is what happened. Instead, working with the Americans, the Russians brokered a deal that saw the Syrian regime supposedly dismantle its chemical weapons programme. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) destroyed about 1,200 tonnes of Syria’s chemical stockpile. Barack Obama hailed the deal as a triumph for diplomacy over force.
Yet chemical attacks by regime forces continued, experts believe. Last year, American and European officials began to voice growing fears that Damascus might have held onto nerve agents and other lethal toxins, in defiance of the deal cooked up by Mr Obama and Vladimir Putin. “Syria has engaged in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance,” Kenneth Ward, America’s representative to the OPCW, said in July. “We…remain very concerned that [chemical warfare agents]…have been illicitly retained by Syria.”
All these fears now appear to have been borne out. As part of the deal in 2013 to end Syria’s chemical weapons programme, both America and Russia promised to punish the Syrian regime should it use chemical weapons again. Despite evidence of the regime’s repeated use of chlorine gas since then, neither side has honoured this promise. In February, Russia once again blocked efforts at the UN Security Council to sanction military and intelligence chiefs connected to the country’s chemical weapons programme. A similar fate doubtless awaits the latest attempt by Britain, France and America at the Security Council. Hours after the attack, the three countries demanded a resolution ordering the Syrian government to hand over all flight logs, flight plans and the names of air force commanders to international inspectors. Russia called the resolution “unacceptable”.
Barring a significant shift in American policy towards military action, the latest use of chemical weapons is unlikely to alter much the war’s trajectory. The rebels are increasingly weak. They lost their enclave in the city of Aleppo, the opposition’s last big urban stronghold, in December. Pockets of resistance remain around Damascus, north of Homs city, and along the southern border with Jordan; but these areas grow ever more isolated. In Idlib an alliance led by a group linked to al-Qaeda has gained strength, allowing America to argue that there are few appropriate rebel partners left to work with on the ground.
Indeed, now that Donald Trump is in charge, removing Bashar al-Assad from power is no longer a stated aim of American policy in Syria. In recent weeks, senior American officials have said for the first time in public that they are willing to live with Mr Assad as they concentrate on defeating Islamic State. Ironically, this approach is in fact more likely to fuel further extremism in Syria as jihadists seek to take advantage of the vacuum that America’s political disengagement now presents them with. It also means that, with Mr Assad at the reins, the Syrian regime will continue to drop gas on its own people. There is nothing to stop it.