At 6:30 in the morning April 4th in Khan Sheikhoun an explosion woke Syrian photographer Hussein Kayal.
By Sebastian Torero
Kayal, who works for the Idlib Media Center, an organization which supports the opposition in the Syrian Civil War, rushed from his home to the source of the sound. In the homes of this town some 30 miles south of Idlib, a rebel-controlled city in northern Syria, he found entire families in their homes, paralyzed, their pupils constricted. Kayal recognized the symptoms–these were the signs of a chemical attack. He put on a gas mask and went to work helping the victims.
Many of the organizations which treated victims in the aftermath of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun have reported seeing them exhibit symptoms caused by chemical weapons: vomiting, foaming at the mouth, constricted pupils, paralysis.Between 58 and 70 people have died in Khan Sheikhoun as a result of exposure to chemical agents. At least 11 of those were children. Kayal and others captured haunting images of people being carried away , lifeless and unresponsive, from the village. It was the worst number of casualties due to chemical weapons in Syria since the attacks of 2013 which left hundreds dead and the international community enraged.
Russia’s defense ministry and sources aligned with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad have said that a Syrian airstrike destroyed a facility which held chemical weapons destined for extremist groups in Iraq, but according to Hamish de Bretton Gordon, the director of Doctors Under Fire and a former commanding officer of the United Kingdom Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Regiment, has said these claims are “fanciful” and “completely untrue.”
Gordon stated that all the evidence definitively pointed to an attack using the chemical agent sarin, an odorless and tasteless nerve-agent. It prevents enzymes in the brain from breaking down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, once that chemical has completed its task of communicating between one brain cell to another. A brain affected by sarin gas will continue to send signals to the body to release tears, to create saliva, to expel the contents of the stomach and the bowels. The build-up of acetylcholine in the brain after inhaling sarin can kill a human being in 1-10 minutes.
Sarin is also destroyed when it explodes. This makes Russian claims–that a Syrian airstrike targeting a facility storing the chemical agent caused it to spread in such a way that it harmed civilians in a rebel-controlled province–seem far-fetched at best. The attack was the third instance in just over a week where chemical weapons were allegedly used in Syria. It was not the only one, simply the deadliest.
America’s “Red Line”
In August of 2012, then-President Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would be a “red line,” and such an action “would change [the] calculus” of the United States. Chemical weapons were a different beast. Their use would be met with an American response. A year after this statement, the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta, not far from the capital of Damascus. A series of chemical attacks in 2013 killed hundreds of people, mainly innocent civilians. Many of those killed, like in Idlib, were children. And then, as now, the world saw images of rows of children, seemingly unharmed yet laying still, as if sleeping, destroyed by a weapon they could not see.
No human being of good conscious could look at these images of Syrian children and remain unmoved. And certainly, President Obama and his administration were horrified by such a brutal action by the Assad regime. Death caused by conventional weaponry or illegal chemical weaponry is still a loss of human life, but there is something terrifying about the thought of chemical weapons, about the way a gas blends with the air one breath turning the world around oneself instantly deadly, the way in which they indiscriminately eliminate all life, plant, animal, human, which terrifies the psyche.
Yet President Obama did not react. The “red line” was crossed, and despite a verbal reaction, nothing was done. President Obama has expressed on several occasions that he felt the right decision was made at the time. There were many within the administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry and former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, at the time serving on the National Security Council, who disagreed vociferously with the president.
Obama had been prepared to strike, at least somewhat. He, too, was outraged by Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and a strike was planned for August 31st. But as the date approached, Obama’s doubts about the wisdom of a strike against the Syrian regime accumulated. The day the strike was supposed to occur, he instead gave a speech saying that the authorization to do so would be put before Congress. The change of plans was startling to many of his advisors and others in government. There were cries that American credibility was devastatingly undercut, that Obama was allowing Assad to get away with murder against his own people.
A week after Obama’s decision not to strike, Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled him aside at the G20 summit to tell him he could get Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons. John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov managed to negotiate an agreement where Assad, who had previously not even acknowledged his chemical weapons arsenal, to abandon it almost entirely. President Obama saw this as a victory; the almost total removal of Assad’s chemical arsenal was more than any airstrikes would have accomplished in his view, and the deal was negotiated through diplomacy, not force.
But “almost” is not completely. Russia’s involvement in Syria has grown steadily, and the United States has intervened militarily in the country, but only to attack the so-called Islamic State. And it seems as if some of the remaining chemical weaponry held by the Assad regime has been used, once again, upon the people of Syria.
A similar test for a new administration
The situation following the deaths caused by chemical weapons is rather similar, albeit on a smaller scale. The Assad regime dropped sarin gas on its population and innocent civilians were killed. International and moral norms were violated. And America has been looked upon to respond, although perhaps this gaze was somewhat different since 2013. Perhaps the international community does not anticipate an American reaction. Perhaps the perception of the United States on the international stage has changed rather significantly in the past few years. And American policy towards Syria had somewhat shifted; there was no longer a strong commitment, which in the past may have been potentially more rhetorical than actual, to prioritizing the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.
President Trump has released a statement condemning both the Syrian leader and the former American leader for their roles in the deaths of innocent humans in Syria. The “reprehensible” attack, the statement reads, is something that “cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” Also, Trump blames the “weakness and irresolution” of his predecessor for the death of these people, for this terrible act. And his response thus far has shown he plans to take a very different road than that of President Obama
Some see Obama’s decision not to strike Syria as a failure of grand proportions, a moment when the United States could have kept its word, preserved international values, punished a regime for slaughtering hundreds of its own people through the horror of chemical weapons, and yet did nothing. Others see it as a wise decision by a professorial leader, someone who had seen the failures of American interventionism throughout the world, and in this region in particular, and chose to act cautiously and pursue diplomatic options. President Trump clearly places himself within the former group.
It is clear that, just as Donald Trump has taken a more aggressive stance than his predecessor towards ISIS in Iraq, he is willing to use force in response to the use of chemical weaponry in Syria.
Upon the orders of President Trump, US warships fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at an air base in Syria where, according to U.S. officials, the planes that dropped chemical weapons upon Khan Sheikhoun were located. He ordered the strike from his private club at Mar-a-Lago. The first American direct military action targeting the Assad regime, and it is ordered from a vacation spot in Florida.
What a world we are living in.
There are certainly those who applaud the decision. So many across the American political spectrum have wanted the United States to have a more interventionist role in the conflict in Syria, and after six years of war, action has been taken against the Assad regime.
So now America has bombed multiple sides in this conflict; ISIS on one hand, Assad’s air bases on the other. One operation is legally sound, the other, more dubious. The consequences of this strike by American forces on a Syrian military target remain to be seen. Is it a moment where the country stood up for international principles by striking at a government that used chemical weapons against its own people? Is it another illegal and morally fraught descent into the labyrinth that is intervening in the Middle East?
Is America a savior? Or misguided and brash, speaking loudly and swinging a big stick far too freely? These actions which bring us directly into combat with the Assad regime, are they made through wisdom or hubris? All these questions ensure that what lies ahead is uncertain. At the end of his statement to the American people, informing them he had ordered a strike against the Assad regime, Donald Trump called on all “civilized nations” to join America in “seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” Trump believes American military power can help bring an end to this war. There is serious reason to doubt that this would be the case.
Also, Trump called not only for the world to join in ending the conflict in Syria, but to end “terrorism of all kinds and all types.” This statement alludes to the possibility that our current president subscribes to the concept of state terrorism, believing in the equivalency of acts by ISIS and acts by Assad. This would be a major shift in ideology; just a week ago members of the Trump administration had asserted they would prioritize destroying ISIS over removing Assad.. The morning of November 9th, the world was aware that the political order had been rudely disrupted. Many petty squabbles, accusations tweeted, travel bans, and failed health care reform efforts since that day, we will now see how a new administration will act in the complicated realm of the outside world.