A history of chemical weapons use in Syria
On Aug. 20, 2012, in the early stages of the second year of the Syrian civil war, then U.S. President Barack Obama said the following upon claims that Bashar al-Assad had started using chemical weapons against rebels: “We have been very clear to the al-Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Just 40 days before Obama said those words, Mohamed Morsi had been elected president of Egypt with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had also yet to burst onto the scene. The rebels in Syria were mostly just Brotherhood-leaning fighters backed by a coalition of countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the U.S., while separately the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra was starting to emerge.
Al-Assad did not pay much attention to the U.S. president’s “red line” warning. He felt the full support of Russian President Vladimir Putin behind him, as well as Iran’s “supreme leader” Ali Khamanei. As a result, reports about the use of chemical weapons only increased.
Months later, on March 20, 2013, speaking in a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.”
On June 4, 2013, then French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said they had “no doubt” that the Syrian regime was using sarin gas. That was a month before the toppling of Morsi through a military coup in Egypt led by his Chief of Staff General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, backed by Saudi Arabia and assisted by the U.S.’s turning of a blind eye. That in turn helped accelerate the collapse of the Brotherhood network in Syria and resulted in the strengthening of al-Nusra and ISIL, which had declared its presence earlier in 2013.
Then came the biggest chemical attack reported up to that time came on Aug. 21 from Ghouta, 15 km east of the capital Damascus, with claims that over 1,000 people, mostly non-combatants, had been killed. Domestic and international pressure mounted on Obama, with many recalling his “red line” warning, including Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time.
But on Sept. 4, 2013, when asked in a press conference in Stockholm, Obama said “I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line.”
Now, almost five years later, on April 6, 2018, another report from Ghouta was dispatched about a chemical gas attack that may have killed 60 more people.
In the Syrian civil war so far, human rights observers estimate that more than half-a-million people have been killed. Millions have fled the country, with over three million Syrians in Turkey and many in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and some in Western countries. Millions have been displaced within Syria itself and hundreds of towns have been ruined.
Obama has been replaced as U.S. president by Donald Trump. In response to the latest chemical attack reports, his Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said “all options are on the table” regarding action against the Syrian regime. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, has denounced the reports of chemical weapons use as a plot.
If you believe that the U.S. is now ready to confront Russia in Syria, you are also free to be optimistic about the moves necessary to stop this tragedy from occurring.