The Slatest

Assad’s Chemical Weapons Loophole

A picture taken from behind broken glass shows a couple pushing a pram as they rush to check their house following an air strike on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, on February 21, 2015. 

Photo by ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times reports on the ongoing efforts of human rights groups in Syria to draw attention to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical gas against civilians, two years after he promised to dismantle his arsenal of chemical weapons.

The White Helmets, an organization of Syrian volunteers funded by European governments, have documented 14 separate attacks involving 26 barrels of chlorine, just near the northern town of Idlib, where fighting between the military and rebels has been heavy in recent weeks. There have been reports of these attacks for more than a year, but western governments, having already gone through a contentious round of negotiations over Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013 have been slow to respond.

Chlorine, one of the oldest chemical weapons, isn’t nearly as deadly as the sarin gas Assad used to kill hundreds in the city of Ghouta in 2013, nearly prompting U.S. military intervention, but it can sicken and kill if inhaled, and its also very visible in the air, making it effective at sowing panic in populated areas. Dropped in barrels from helicopters, chlorine is also readily available and cheap, making it appealing for a Syrian military short on resources and manpower.

With many legitimate civilian uses, including water-purification—much needed in Syria right now—the government was allowed to keep its stockpiles of chlorine under the deal it negotiated to give up its chemical weapons. This gave the disturbingly resourceful Assad a loophole that allows him to continue using poison gas on his own people.  

This March, the U.N. Security Council condemned the use of chlorine in Syria, but due to Russia’s insistence, it didn’t single out the government as a perpetrator. ISIS has been accused of using chlorine in roadside bomb attacks in Iraq, but within Syria, the military—the only fighting force with access to aircraft—is almost certainly the culprit.

This presents a political dilemma for the Obama administration, which has been putting out subtle hints that it would be amenable to a deal to end the conflict that leaves Assad in power. This would be a grim compromise to begin with, given the Syrian leader’s crimes against humanity, but it would be even tougher to justify with convincing evidence that Assad continues to use chemical weapons, something that Obama had once described as a red line that would trigger U.S. intervention.

U.S. military action against Assad is even more unthinkable now than it was in 2013, thanks to the emergence of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other radical groups. With western governments focusing their attention on the jihadists, Assad is mostly free to continue the killing.