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Fecteau: That Red Line in Syria

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

 

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, is once again accused of another lethal chemical weapons attack in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, the deadliest gas attack since 2013. The Trump administration has responded by calling this an action “that cannot be ignored by the civilized world” and cited the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” as a reason for this attack. With that being said, the Trump administration must send a strong message these heinous attacks will have dire consequences.

Unfortunately, the United States failed to hold the Assad regime accountable in the past. In August 2012, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, President Barack Obama made it clear the use of chemical weapons was a ‘red line’ that would be met with a military response. One year later, in August 2013, when the Assad-led Syrian government crossed that line, Obama failed to receive Congressional support for those respective strikes.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to the rescue with a face-saving deal. In the absence of a military strike, the Assad regime would forfeit 1,300 tons of chemical weapons (excluding certain chemical weapons that fell outside the scope of the agreement such as its chlorine stockpile) and declared all the rest of its chemical arsenal. And that was that; mission accomplished or so the world believed.

This was just a huge façade. Hollow threats matter not to a desperate regime clinging to power, attempting to break the will of its people at any cost. By failing to hold the Assad’s regime truly accountable with a military response, as promised, the Obama administration failed to enforce international standards that were meant to protect the most vulnerable people in a war zone.

This latest attack is further evidence that the Assad-led Syrian government doesn’t care about international law or that red line Obama mentioned. The attacked occurred from a Sukhoi 22 jet (a signature Russian jet supplied to the Assad regime), using chlorine gas (something Assad’s regime still has in its possession), and targeting those opposed to the Assad regime. Thus, the most likely suspect is — you guessed it — the Assad regime.

This isn’t anything new. The United Nations found that the Assad regime used chemical weapons at least three times (and potentially more) in the past; two of which occurred after the supposed peaceful removal of Assad’s chemical weapons. This time is different; it is on a far larger scale, and the Assad-led government has done little to hide its role in the attack – besides the usual; it wasn’t us.

The Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is a serious break from international norms and law. Weapons are inherently destructive – that is a given – but conventional weapons are considered more humane as they can more accurately discriminate between soldiers and civilians. Chemical weapons are undifferentiating, cause appalling misery, can cripple people for life, and can contaminate an area for generations.

While it is uncertain why the Assad regime used chemical weapons, yet again, and far more egregiously this time, it may have something to do with the Trump administration’s public acknowledgment that it will not demand President al-Assad’s ouster. This could have been the catalyst for the Assad regime’s reckless behavior.

The Trump administration has a responsibility to make sure these types of chemical attacks are not “ignored,” whether by military response or otherwise. It also has a duty to reconsider whether President al-Assad can remain in power, and should not tacitly tolerate the Syrian government’s behavior. The Assad regime has for far too long violated international norms for this to be met with a muffled response, again.  

Matt Fecteau ([email protected]) is a former White House national security intern and Iraq War veteran. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewFecteau

 

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