Gas tragedy puts Syria’s sustainability in question
The United Nations failed on April 6 to produce a resolution for the second time in two days regarding the Syrian gas attack on April 4, which killed at least 86, many of them children, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun near Idlib, in the northwest of the country, because of objections by Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
Russia denounced the incident as “monstrous” but also stood by Syria’s “anti-terrorist operations” and accused the United States of not being “objective” in its strong reaction. On April 5, Nikki Haley, the permanent U.S. representative to the U.N., showed the Security Council photographs of bodies of children who died on the streets of the town reportedly after being exposed to chemical attack, while noting that Russia was supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in its actions. The Turkish Health Ministry announced on April 6 after autopsies on three people who could not be saved in a Turkish hospital that the trio had been exposed to “sarin gas.” The statement added that the autopsies were carried out in the presence of representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Turkish government sources said two Syrian Su-22 jets carried out the attacks at around 6:30 a.m. on April 4 with a total of five sorties, dropping bombs on a residential area. The Turkish sources denied the claims of Syrian authorities who said there was a chemical weapons store used by jihadist terrorists. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on April 6 that the buildings hit were used as a chemical weapons store by the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and that the military did not use chemical weapons itself.
If that is true, that means the Syrian military hit a building in a residential area on suspicion that it might have been used as a chemical weapons storage by a terrorist organization. The consequence of hitting a suspected chemical weapons arsenal in a residential area would obviously be that civilians in the vicinity would be exposed to poisonous gas, and that’s even assuming that the attack deliberately targeted that. Muallem’s claims do not lift the responsibility of the “monstrous” attack, as the Russians said, from the shoulders of the al-Assad regime.
Actually the al-Assad regime denied any involvement in the chemical attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, on Aug. 21, 2013, when hundreds of people were killed; the numbers vary between 280 and 1,730 because of a lack of health records. But a U.N. report later said that it was “sarin” gas which was used as the agent and delivered to Ghouta by a surface-to-surface missiles which the Syria army owned.
Earlier on Aug. 20, 2012, former U.S. President Barack Obama told the press that the use of chemical weapons by the al-Assad regime in the Syrian civil war would be a “red line” for him to change his calculations. After the Ghouta attack in August 2013, Turkey and a number of governments urged the U.S. to intervene to end the human tragedy there. But on Sept. 4, 2013, Obama retreated and said he had not set a red line.
That was the year that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, emerged in the Syria theater and after Obama’s retreat, the fight in Syria escalated terribly. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Hezbollah intervened in the fight on behalf of the al-Assad regime under the diplomatic protection given by Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council. Amid accusations that it turned a blind eye to foreign terrorists going in and out of Syria using its 910-kilometer border, Turkey had to take some 3 million refugees while also being exposed to bloody acts of terror by ISIL and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK’s Syria branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in the meantime, became the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) partner on the ground against ISIL in September 2014. The situation was further complicated with the Russian intervention in September 2015 and, more recently, Turkey’s intervention in August 2016.
The U.N. made a call on four countries as major actors in Syria, namely the U.S., Russia, Turkey and Iran, to help secure a truce for at least 72 hours to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to trapped civilians.
The recent statement by the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, about the unsustainability of the situation in Syria signals a radical change in the U.S. attitude; perhaps a ruthless dictator will no longer be tolerated just because he is not an Islamist. Trump’s words implying an intervention without the consent of the U.N. – due to the Russian veto – could change the equation.
Later on April 6, a Russian source told AP that their support for Assad was “not unconditional.”
But the recent developments and fragmentation of the country into ethnically, religiously and ideologically polarized sections brings about the question of the sustainability of Syria as a country. It seems it will not be possible to solve the Syrian problem unless some radical steps are taken, regardless of whether there is a temporary truce or not.