The pictures coming out of Khan Sheikhoun are horrific. Children foaming at the mouth, some with terrible head wounds. No wonder the reaction of the world has been outrage. 'Assad must go' has been revived as a catchphrase in the West.
We are right to be appalled. Nevertheless, several features about the reported sarin attack in Syria's Idlib Governorate should give pause in the current rush to judgment. Firstly, while you wouldn't know it from much of the media, the facts themselves are contested.
The first reports from inside Syria (on which the world relied) came from rebel news agencies and the 'White Helmets', a group set up in Turkey by a former British special forces officer which operates exclusively in rebel-held areas of Syria and has been closely associated with rebel military formations.
These reports claim that the Syrian government attacked the town, launching the feared nerve agent sarin in airstrikes. The pictures released to prove this show first responders from the White Helmets treating the victims just after the attacks.
Sarin, like other nerve agents, disrupts the operation of enzymes involved in transmitting nerve impulses, causing the body to seize up. Death comes by suffocation. Crucially, however, it is absorbed through the skin. The pictures released show the rescuers apparently unharmed, notwithstanding their bare hands, face (except for a standard gas mask) and loose fitting clothing.
If it was a sarin attack, the rescuers would be as dead as their victims. This already casts doubt on the narrative — a doubt increased by the fact that Syria's last Category 1 chemical weapons (including sarin) were certified destroyed aboard a US warship in 2014 under the supervision of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons. Later reports suggest that chlorine was in fact the agent involved.
The Russians and Syrians claim that, while there was an airstrike by their forces, it used ordinary explosives and that what was hit was a rebel munitions dump, possibly containing chemicals.
Western sources have claimed that this is unlikely because nerve agents would be destroyed by such a strike. That may be so although sarin is often launched using conventional artillery and whether or not this would be true of chlorine or other chemical stockpiles is even less clear. No independent party has yet got to the scene and so the allegations on both sides remain just that.
"So abhorrent are chemical weapons to the civilised world that no-one would consider using them unless their back was against the wall. This is not really Assad's position."
In addition, investigating alleged chemical attacks is notoriously difficult. As I mentioned the last time Syria was accused of such an attack, an uncontaminated chain of custody between untampered-with sample and independent laboratory is required — something fiendishly difficult in a war zone. It is important to note that chemicals degrade over time and so, unless a team goes in soon, the truth may be impossible to discover. While the last attack (in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta) was widely blamed on the government (and served as the trigger for its welcome destruction of its chemical weapons program), journalists such as the respected Seymour Hersh have cast increasing doubt on that narrative.
It is worth mentioning, too, that chemical weapons are usually the choice of desperation. So abhorrent are they to the civilised world (and rightly so) that no-one would even consider using them unless their back was truly against the wall. This is not really Assad's position. Is he authoritarian? Certainly. Is he cruel? Absolutely — he did, after all, maintain stockpiles of chemical weapons himself until recently. But chemical weapons do have a moral cost — they tend to line world opinion up against you (as Saddam Hussein found to his cost when he used them against Iran and the Kurds — even if it was with the active assistance of the West).
Assad, however, is winning in Syria. With Russian help he has reclaimed most of the territory he lost before 2015 and now controls over half of Syria's territory containing over 80 per cent of its population. The West had recently stopped repeating its demand that he go. Of what possible benefit could it be for him to launch a chemical strike now? That's not to say it didn't happen, we don't always act rationally. Still, it's a point worth bearing in mind.
Likewise, it is not as though chemical weapons have not been used as a cause for war in previous ill-thought and illegal Western military adventures. You only have to think back to Colin Powell's sonorous presentation of the absolutely airtight case for war with Iraq based on its evil stockpile of undeclared chemical horrors.
None of this, however, has stopped the rolling drumbeat towards a wider war from starting up again. Of course, it's not as if the Syrian civil war is free of foreign players as it is. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Russia, the US/NATO, Turkey and Israel are all involved in one capacity or another along with an eye-watering array of rebel groups owing allegiance to various foreign powers.
This time, the stakes are even higher than in previous Syrian interventions (which, whatever their actual effects, have been at least nominally aimed at ISIS). Russia, too, is a nuclear power with the power (along with the US) to reduce the world to radioactive slag. It has invested much of its limited power and all of its prestige in keeping Assad in power (as a better alternative to the radical Islamist rebels). We owe it to the people of Syria — and perhaps to future generations of our own children — not to rush to easy judgment.
UPDATE: At 8.45pm on Thursday 7 April Eastern Time, the US launched a massive military strike on a Syrian airbase near Homs.
Fr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
07 April 2017
You make salient points Justin, about being cautious and as to what reason could Assad have to commit this act when control of land has been reclaimed but this town has been reported as rebel held and when a former Australian Ambassador to Egypt is quoted as stating "Quite frankly there are worse people than Assad and you simply don't know what you'd get if he were to be replaced." (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/syria-chemical-weapons-attack-removing-dictator-bashar-alassad-not-an-option-20170405-gve95w.html) we are left to wonder what can be done to make a positive difference for Syria's civilians.
07 April 2017
As a regular watcher of SBS world news excellent coverage of this tragic and horrific conflict in Syria, and not having watched the news for a week or so, I was very saddened to hear of the reporting of chemical warfare and the US response. I can only imagine the devastation Syrians are living through, both in Syria and elsewhere in the world.
07 April 2017
Thank you, Justin. There is such a paucity of detail in the mass media, and a need to rely on the assurances of governments about the facts underlying major decisions, which is a very uncomfortable position to be in.
Roy Chen Yee
08 April 2017
Meanwhile, no matter how you look at it, Trump has made the Chinese president look weak. Having your opponent pull a military event on the proxy of your land neighbour and the supplier of natural gas and other resources to feed your industrial base while you are visiting his territory and making yourself the object of his hospitality is, under diplomatic norms, his telling you something in code. The Russians were warned in advance of the strike so they could take steps to keep their military staff safe. The Russians would have reason to tell the Chinese of the impending strike. They knew Xi was in the US and they might have expected their close friend to register his disapproval publicly. Whether or not China was warned in advance by Russia, Xi’s stated ‘understanding’ of Trump’s reason for striking (viz. the gas attack) is not going to go down well with the Russians. His first few days after returning home are going to be awkward as he deals with Russia and his opponents within the Communist Party. The Philippines, which hosts significant US military facilities but has been making overtures to China, will no doubt also be thinking of the ramifications for them of the strike. Beginner’s luck perhaps for Trump, but still luck.
10 April 2017
Thank you for the excellent article. I've posted it to Facebook.
10 April 2017
Oh, what a tangled web we weave! Why did God create such flawed creatures? He could have avoided the need for Easter! Why, why, why????
10 April 2017
I don`t like or respect Mr Trump, but this seems to have been quite a master-stroke. It is most likely that Assad`s people did this crime, but even if not it re-puts red lines in a number of places the need them; for Assad and Russia, and for North Korea in particular (with strong message to China). US credibility on the world stage crumbled under Obama`s leadership, but has now been restored with one swift strike against a purely military target. I like your otherwise logical articles, Justin, but they seem over-anti-American; by any objective comparison (and admittedly in a pretty poor field of international competitors), they are still the good(er) guys.
10 April 2017
Despite not knowing the full facts - it's obviously some form of chemical agent - and the result of Assad's brutal 6 year war on dissidents. Something needs to be done to stop the regime killing machine.
10 April 2017
I think it was meant to kill Isil and rebels, but where there are civilians and terrorists co-habitating, then collateral damage can be expected. The whole region is a basket case of fragmented tribes and interests that will never agree on peace, then add on Russia's, Turkey and Iran interests, and only a fool would intervene.It takes tough leaders to rule these countries. Saddam was one, but when removed by the West in the cause for democracy, we are left with a festering, economic sucking obligation to keep propping up our actions.
13 April 2017
I have little doubt that Bashar Assad's Air Force used chemical weapons in this instance. There is enough evidence that the Russian supervision of the supposed destruction of his arsenal was ineffective. President Trump's action - I believe it was advised far earlier to the Russians - sent a very clear message to Assad. I have a suspicion that Assad's time may have come and that his Russian and Iranian backers may desert him. He is not essential to their purposes.
13 April 2017
Thankyou Justin. It is reported that the US told Australia and Russia before the bombing. Presumably Russia as a Syrian ally would have warned Syria, so what exactly did the bombing succeed in doing other than making Trump look like an "actionman". Of what benefit was this to the Syrian people is the nagging question that will not go away.
Justin Glyn SJ
14 April 2017
Eugene - appreciate the compliment. I am not trying to take sides against the US here. Indeed, quite the opposite: we just don't have enough evidence to know what happened - but there is no basis in international law or morality for bombing on a hunch.
Aurelius - it may be the result of a chemical agent but even that is unclear. I agree wholeheartedly that the government are no angels. However, to call Al Qaida and IS (the main opposition) "dissidents" is, I suggest a bit of a stretch too. If the Syrian war ever was the suppression of peaceful dissidents, it is certainly not that now. (Remember that the US could find no more than 4 or 5 "moderate rebels" this time 2 years ago.)
Edward - while the Russians initiated the diplomatic process, the weapons were destroyed on a US warship by an international body (the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). 2 CW depots were left undestroyed - because they were under rebel control.
Pamela - I agree with you completely. We don't know where this goes, particularly if the US doubles down. On the other hand, if Trump hadn't warned the Russians...WWIII beckoned (may still).
16 April 2017
There is credible evidence, Justin, mentioned in David Kilcullen's excellent article in the Weekend Australian's Inquirer Section (April 15/16 2017), that not all Bashar Assad's chemical weapons were destroyed: hence the recent atrocity and the previous use of sarin gas at Ghouta. One damning piece of evidence is that only the Syrian government has planes capable of delivering these strikes: the opposition, whether secular or Islamicist, does not. Kilcullen also mentions that the Syrian government only controls 23% of its own national territory: a parlous position indeed. Bashar Assad is a ruthless hereditary dictator who has eliminated all possible replacements for him within his own Alawi community. I have no doubt his end is nigh and I shall not shed a tear for either him or his regime. The interim in Syria may be long and bloody with the various factions involved. The plight of the ancient Christian Community - mostly Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic and there long before the Muslim conquest - does not look good as their religious leaders appear, in the main, to have thrown their support behind the regime, which is understandable, but does not help their position long term.