The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons launched an investigation last weekend into allegations that the Syrian government has on several occasions used chlorine gas in its ongoing offensive in the Ghouta region near Damascus.
It was Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians that prompted U.S. President Trump to launch a surprise missile attack against Bashar al-Assad’s military last year. Could the same thing happen again?
Chlorine gas is much less deadly than sarin gas, the nerve agent used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack that prompted last year’s intervention, but it can kill and is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention. One attack killed a child on Sunday, according to the local volunteer organization known as the White Helmets. Syria and its ally Russia have both denied the use of chlorine by government forces.
Syria signed that convention in 2013, as part of a Russian-brokered deal following a chemical attack that killed hundreds of people in eastern Ghouta, under which Syria agreed to give up its stockpiles of chemical weapons. Since 2013, there have been continual reports of the Assad regime using chlorine in violation of its international agreements.
President Obama was assailed by critics, including Trump, for agreeing to the deal after the Ghouta attack rather than enforcing the “red line” Obama had infamously drawn regarding Assad’s use of chemical weapons. “I wouldn’t have drawn the line, but once he drew it, he had no choice but to go across,” Trump said during a televised debate in September 2015. “Somehow, [Obama] just doesn’t have courage. There is something missing from our president.”
Trump, not normally an enthusiast of either international law or the United Nations, cited both in justifying his Tomahawk strike in April, telling the nation in a televised statement, “It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.”
Since then, however, the U.S. has on several occasions accused Syria of using chemical weapons and developing new ones. This has prompted some questions from observers about what ever happened to Trump’s own “red line.”
U.S. officials have said off the record that Trump would be willing to consider new military action if sanctions and diplomatic pressure don’t work. French President Emmanuel Macron has gone farther, saying that “France will strike” if chemical weapons use is proven. Trump, who expressed a strong emotional reaction to the photographs of slain children at Khan Sheikhoun to the point that he essentially reversed his Syria policy, has had almost nothing to say about the similarly grim scenes in eastern Ghouta. A White House statement calling for a halt to the violence last week did not mention chemical weapons. There doesn’t seem to be much political momentum toward intervention this time around.
Does Trump’s injunction that the U.S. will use force to respond to chemical weapon attacks apply only to sarin? Secretary of Defense James Mattis suggested this, speaking to reporters on Feb. 2. He called chlorine a “somewhat separate category” from sarin. Speaking of sarin use, he said, “you all have seen how we reacted to that, so they’d be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention.” This statement is somewhat confusing given that chlorine also violates the convention.
Over the past seven years of war, Assad has shown that he will gradually escalate his aggression to test the boundaries of what the international community will tolerate. Assad is currently getting the message that there are limits to Trump’s willingness to enforce the chemical weapons convention. There’s every reason to believe he will use more deadly weapons in the future.
There are very good reasons to be wary of intervention in this case, including the extremist affiliations of some of the rebel groups fighting in eastern Ghouta and the mind-boggling complexity of the overall Syrian conflict and America’s place within it.
Of course, this was also true before the American missile strike last year. These are the very reasons Obama was so reluctant to intervene five years ago. The president has credited himself for enforcing the red line that Obama shied away from, but what Trump has done—issuing an ultimatum he never intended to enforce—really is not so different.