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Why Syria Feels it Can Use Chemical Weapons with Impunity

That a mass murderer like Assad continues to go unpunished helps explain why his regime remains in power

Ever since then-US president Barack Obama walked back his vow to respond forcefully in case the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, Damascus has deployed non-conventional arms repeatedly.

Obama in 2012 set Syria’s use of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war as a “red line” for US military intervention, but failed to follow through after the horrific sarin gas attack the next year in Ghouta, which killed upwards of 1,700 people.

Most analysts attribute Obama’s non-response to his courtship of Iran, Assad’s staunch ally, which has since established a significant military presence in Syria. At the time, the White House was wooing Tehran in hopes of reaching a multilateral deal to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, a process that culminated with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In the interim, many US lawmakers advocated for a bill authorizing the use of military force against Syrian targets. However, the administration instead came to what now appears to have been a phony agreement with Russia to hold off air strikes in return for Damascus handing over “every single bit” of its chemical weapons stockpile.

In the ensuing years, the Assad regime has killed an estimated 1,500 people with non-conventional weapons, disproving the widespread contention that Syria had obligingly rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.

“Assad has been using chemicals weapons for [the better part of the conflict] and this has been largely ignored not only by the US, but by the greater international community. If there was a consistent US plan for Syria, this would send a message to other actors in the region, foremost Iran and its proxies, and also Russia,” Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies who reported from in Syria in 2013, told The Media Line.

“An increase in US troops in the country along with other allied forces,” Weinthal continued, “would greatly contribute to stopping these kinds of attacks. [By contrast], disengagement is dangerous because if chemical warfare cannot be stopped in Syria, then there could be [proliferation] in other parts of the Middle East and even in Europe. Deterrence needs to be re-established in order to uphold global security.”

Enter US President Donald Trump, who in April 2017 launched strikes targeting multiple Syrian army installations after a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun killed scores of people. Almost exactly one year later, the US, in conjunction with France and the United Kingdom, struck numerous sites in Syria following the Douma chemical attack, which likewise killed dozens.

However, the actions were limited in scope, and Trump soon after made clear his intent to withdraw all US forces from Syria, an announcement undoubtedly welcomed in the corridors of power in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow.

While Trump has since backtracked at the advice of senior American military officials, and due to pushback from regional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – which both viewed the prospective drawdown as a green light for Iran to further entrench itself in Syria – the signal had already been sent: The US was on the retreat.

Accordingly, few were surprised when reports surfaced this week of an alleged chlorine attack by regime forces in Idlib Province, where Syrian soldiers recently launched an offensive in contravention of a Russia-Turkey agreement that had set up a “safe zone” in the region.

“We are still gathering information on this incident, but we repeat our warning that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, the United States and our allies will respond quickly and appropriately,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Given historical precedent, Assad is bound to have reacted to the warning with a shrug of the shoulders, if not a smirk.

“The regime has been using chemical weapons on-and-off much more than has been reported,” Prof. Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert and former director of the Jerusalem-based Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, told The Media Line. “Some suggest there have been hundreds of [chemical] attacks and the international community has done very little. There have been some surgical strikes, but nothing more, and Russia is acting as Assad’s protector.”

Maoz does not detract from the seriousness of the chemical attacks, but analyzes the conflict from a broader perspective.

“In the big picture, there have been hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed, millions displaced and so many others tortured. It is a bad neighborhood, and the US warning does not carry much weight given Trump’s desire to pull out from the country,” he said.

Indeed, many argue that sequential US administrations, coupled with global apathy, have paved the way for Damascus to act at will, knowing there will be few, if any, consequences. That a mass murderer like Assad believes he can defy international law with impunity helps explain why his regime remains intact even as it continues perpetrating one of the worst atrocities since World War II.