Just days after an explicit warning from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Syria has launched another round of chemical gas attacks in the northwestern province of Idlib. Footage posted by volunteer rescue workers showed suffocating men being stripped of their clothes and doused with water. The attacks are part of an ongoing effort to test whether President Trump will enforce the red line on chemical weapons he put in place last year.
Last April, following an attack with sarin gas that killed more than 80 civilians, President Trump ordered missile strikes in retaliation for actions that went “beyond a red line.” Over the past 30 days, there have been six reported instances of Syrian forces using chlorine gas, met with repeated U.S. warnings.
Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned Syria while emphasizing that “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims,” since it remains the guarantor of a 2013 agreement to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons. On Friday, Secretary Mattis said he was concerned about “the likelihood of sarin use,” reminding reporters, “you all have seen how we reacted to that [i.e. in 2017], so they’d be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention.”
In response to yesterday’s reports of a new chlorine attack, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley blasted the Security Council for its inaction, saying, “Accountability is a fundamental principle.” In November, Russia vetoed an extension of the mandate for international inspections, despite a direct appeal from President Trump.
The use of sarin and chlorine gas is outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Assad regime ratified in 2013, following the sarin attack in East Ghouta that killed more than 1,400 hundred men, women, and children. Chlorine is an important industrial chemical, so its manufacture is permitted, yet it is illegal to employ as a weapon. An exceptionally lethal nerve agent, sarin is prohibited outright.
As Mattis indicated, there is no evidence yet of renewed sarin use. Nonetheless, the use of chlorine is a war crime that crosses President Trump’s red line. This is likely to prompt the president to engage the issue directly and decide how to hold the Assad regime accountable.
It is now clear that the limited missile strikes the U.S. launched last April had only a temporary effect. The White House is now likely to consider whether additional strikes are necessary to enforce the red line. Among the strategies that will almost certainly be considered is destroying what remains of Assad’s air force – both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters – as well as targeting chemical weapons production sites. This would reduce Assad’s capability to commit war crimes again.
David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.