For a world that too often seems impervious to the horrors of Syria’s civil war, the photos and videos from Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack, which killed dozens of civilians, bore witness to a new level of atrocity.
People gasping for breath, turning blue, lying dead in the street — all victims of airstrikes apparently by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
It was the deadliest chemical attack in years in Syria, a new marker for a leader with a record of brutality dating to 2011, when he turned his weapons on peaceful protesters. A second attack on Tuesday hit a clinic treating the victims.
Chlorine gas attacks have become almost routine in northern Syria, but medical workers and other witnesses, citing the symptoms this time and the high casualties, said even more lethal nerve agents and other banned toxins were probably used. Although Mr. Assad doesn’t control the entire country, he has effectively won the war against his opponents even as a separate conflict — waged by the United States and others against the Islamic State — continues. So why this attack? Why now? It speaks to his depravity and that of his enablers, especially Russia and Iran.
Mr. Assad may think he can act with impunity now. After all, Russia, which intervened militarily in 2015 to save him from defeat by rebels, vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution in February that would have punished Syria for using chlorine-filled barrel bombs in 2014 and 2015.
Now comes the Trump administration, which has made clear that ousting Mr. Assad is not a priority and fighting the Islamic State takes precedence. President Barack Obama, after calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster in 2011, shifted toward that same view, but only after repeated efforts to work with Russia on a political solution. Mr. Obama also had a record of condemning Mr. Assad’s atrocities and urging that he and his allies be prosecuted for war crimes.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump called the attack a “reprehensible” act “that cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” The usually invisible secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did better. He condemned Mr. Assad by name, said he must be held accountable and pointed out that Russia and Iran “also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”
But the comments have little power, coming as they do after weeks of Mr. Trump voicing both distaste for America’s traditional role as a promoter of human rights and praise of authoritarian leaders, like Vladimir Putin of Russia. Mr. Trump also blamed Mr. Obama for the new attacks, citing his “weakness and irresolution” in setting a red line in 2012 against chemical weapons and then doing “nothing.” Has he conveniently forgotten September 2013 tweets telling Mr. Obama “do not attack Syria”?
In his statement, Mr. Trump ignored the fact that instead of taking military action, which Congress mostly opposed, Mr. Obama worked with Russia on a deal under which Mr. Assad agreed to dismantle his chemical munitions. Although much of the stockpile was destroyed, international inspectors later found Syria retained some capability.
More important, Mr. Trump did not say how he would respond now. He could start by supporting a strong resolution, with sanctions, at the United Nations Security Council. Given the close coordination between Mr. Assad and Russia, it is hard to believe Moscow’s insistence that it had no military role in the strike. Regardless, Russia and Iran are complicit in the brutality.
Read more from the source article published in the New York Times on Apr. 4 2017.