President Trump condemned a suspected chemical weapons attack over the weekend on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma that reportedly took the lives of more than forty people, including children. The president blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for unleashing what appears to have been deadly chlorine gas. ”This is about humanity – it can’t be allowed to happen,” the president said. “If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.” Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump warned: “Everybody’s going to pay a price — he will, everybody will.” The president said Monday evening that he was receiving more definitive information on what had happened, that he had a lot of military options on the table and that he would respond “forcefully.”
For their part, the Syrian regime and Russia denied that any such chemical attack had even taken place. Putin warned against any “provocation and speculation on this matter.“
Syrian forces, backed by the Russian military and Iranian militias, have been mounting an offensive to retake several towns that have been rebel-occupied, including Douma, in a region known as Eastern Ghouta. They have surrounded and bombarded the area, cutting it off from vital humanitarian aid. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 1600 people have died as a result and tens of thousands of people have fled. The alleged chemical attack in Douma, said to be the last remaining town in the region still in rebel hands, appeared to have come from one or more Syrian government aircraft. The alleged chemical attack would fit into the Syrian regime’s larger pattern of exerting maximum pressure on the civilian population of rebel-held areas to the point of forcing a surrender.
About a year ago, the Syrian regime launched a chemical attack that killed scores of people, prompting a military response by President Trump that involved strikes by cruise missiles on a Syrian airfield where the attack was believed to have originated. This time, President Trump’s spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “currently” the US is not conducting air strikes on Syria, although President Trump vowed on Monday that he would make a decision on how to respond within 24-48 hours.
Meanwhile, Israel may have jumped the gun early Monday, so to speak, under the cover of the attention being paid to the reported chemical attack. Russia, Syria and Iran have accused Israel of conducting air strikes on Syria’s T4 base near Homs where Israel has struck before. The Israeli government is not commenting. However, Israel has made it clear that it will take whatever action it deems necessary to prevent the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah within Syria and that it would oppose any permanent Iranian buildup near its border with Syria. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli fighter pilot and ex-head of Israeli military intelligence, gave some credence to suspicions that Israel was involved. He was quoted as telling the Army Radio station: “The Iranians are determined to base themselves in Syria. Israel is determined not to let them do that. And there is a strategic collision that perhaps tonight may have come together because of the chemical issue.”
As President Trump was reviewing possible responses to the latest reported chemical attack with military leaders and his national security team, including his hawkish new National Security Adviser John Bolton, the United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting Monday afternoon to discuss the crisis at the suggestion of the United States and some other members of the UN Security Council. The United States and its allies want a definitive independent investigation to determine precisely what took place and by whom, although they have little doubt who is responsible. The U.S. circulated a draft resolution demanding unrestricted humanitarian access to the people of Douma and calling for a new independent mechanism to investigate chemical attacks in Syria, including the one reported to have occurred last weekend.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is empowered to verify whether a chemical attack had in fact taken place, assuming it can gain safe access to the area to conduct thorough tests. However, the OPCW does not on its own investigate who launched the attack for accountability purposes. That was to be the job of the joint investigative body of the United Nations and the OPCW, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), previously established by the Security Council. The problem is that Russia did not like the outcome of JIM’s investigation into prior chemical attacks in Syria, which concluded that the Syrian regime was at least in part responsible. Thus, rather than accept the expert findings of the mechanism that Russia had joined in establishing, Russia threw a tantrum and killed the extension of JIM’s mandate. At the time, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told the Security Council that “Russia will not agree to any mechanism that might shine a spotlight on the use of chemical weapons by its ally, the Syrian regime. It’s as simple and sinful as that.”
Monday’s Security Council meeting felt like “déjà vu all over again,” to quote the late baseball great Yogi Berra. Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia launched into a lengthy anti-American tirade. He accused the United States of undertaking a deliberate policy to stoke international tensions, including the use of slander, insults, blackmail, sanctions and threats of military force. The Russian ambassador accused terrorists of staging chemical attacks and falsely blaming the Syrian regime. He also claimed that chemical munitions of a hand-made nature were found in terrorist storage sites. Finally, the Russian ambassador warned of serious repercussions if the U.S. launches a military action against the “legitimate” government of Syria.
Ambassador Nikki Haley was not impressed by Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia’s warning. She told the Security Council, “Meetings are ongoing. Important decisions are being weighed even as we speak…the United States will respond.” She referred to Assad as a “monster” who “targets civilians” and “has no conscience.” She said that the Russian regime’s “hands are all covered in the blood of Syrian children.” She accused Russia, along with Iran, of “enabling the Assad regime’s murderous destruction.”
After the Security Council concluded its open meeting and closed consultations, Russia’s Ambassador Nebenzia said, “Tomorrow is tomorrow. I am prepared for everything. Whatever happens, we leave it all to chance.” The UN ambassador from Peru, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, said that experts would seek some sort of solution, but did not promise a vote on the matter anytime soon. Even if the Security Council ultimately approves some watered down version of a new investigatory mechanism, it would take months to complete its investigation, only to be rejected by Russia if it once again does not like the findings.
It would be nice if the chair next month of the United Nations disarmament forum that produced the treaty banning chemical weapons would take up the issue of the Syrian chemical attacks and even consider launching an investigation of its own. The only problem is that the chair next month happens to be the Syrian regime itself! As Hillel Neuer, executive director of United Nations Watch, the Geneva based non-governmental organization, explained: “Having the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad preside over global chemical and nuclear weapons disarmament will be like putting a serial rapist in charge of a women’s shelter.”
Then again, UN peacekeepers do not have a very good record when it comes to the women and girls they are supposed to protect either.