Last week the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed what many already knew to be true, that Bashar al Assad had used sarin gas in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Northern Syria, which killed at least 70 Syrians.
Even now the pictures are impossible to forget. Young children lying side by side, foaming at the mouth, with their bodies twisted and contorted. A father, Abdul Hamid Yousif, cradling his two dead twins Aya and Ahmed, and his heart-breaking screams as he looked upon their graves. The chaos as doctors and medical staff desperately tried to treat the increasing number of patients with the little supply of atropine they had, thereby putting themselves in danger of coming into contact with the chemical left on patients’ skin and clothing.
But that was two weeks ago. Safe in the West, our Twitter feeds are no longer filled with these pictures of desperation and death. Abdul Hamid Yousif will still be visiting the graves of his lost twins, but now there will be no pictures to retweet and share.
There is now a complacency with the idea that “this time, we did something”. Just two days after the attack the Trump administration responded by striking a regime airbase. Many argued that unlike his predecessor, Trump had finally sent a message to Bashar al Assad. In the words of Nikki Haley, American ambassador to the UN, “the moral stain of the Assad regime could no longer go unanswered. His crimes against humanity could no longer be met with empty words.”
But local journalist Hadi Abdullah is not so optimistic. Speaking to me, he questioned whether the U.S. strike was really enough of a deterrence or punishment for Assad’s crimes, saying that people in Khan Sheikhoun “ said [that] they were happy with the strike, but it is not enough”. On the day of the chemical attack, he was reporting from Khan Sheikhoun when he was caught in a regime strike against a White Helmet Centre, though was fortunately unharmed.
For Hadi, more needs to be done. “At the very least, we should stop the criminal warplanes of Assad and ensure a no fly zone”, he told me, suggesting that the major world powers should form a coalition against Assad and his crimes, in a similar vein to the Global Coalition Against Daesh.
As of yet there is no such support from the administration a no-fly zone policy, despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggesting that steps were already “underway” in regards to forming an international coalition to remove Assad from power.
It is unlikely that such steps will be successful; until then, Assad’s moral stain and crimes against humanity will continue. Although it remains to be seen as to whether the regime will feel emboldened again to use chemical weapons, Syrians are nevertheless being slaughtered on a daily basis by means of conventional weapons.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 332 Syrians have been killed between 20th March – 20th April 2017 from over 3980 raids and barrel bombs from the regime. The group estimates that around 79 of the total dead were children.
Is it thus to redundant to uphold these red lines, if Assad will simply opt for another means for killing? As Hadi asked me, “is our problem with the crime, or with the means of the crime?”
Those in support of these red lines argue that there is a horror and cruelty unique to killing of civilians by chemical weapons. What many people failed to fully grasp at the time is just how lethal sarin is as a chemical. It is a nerve agent that is 26 times more deadly than cyanide and over 500 times more deadly than chlorine. After contact with the substance the usual signals between our nerves are instantly interrupted, the body loses total control as people start to have convulsions, paralysis and foaming from the mouth, causing death in under 10 minutes.
For Dr. Abo El Ezz, a SAMS field coordinator who was on site in Idlib at the time of the attack, the answer is not so clear cut. Having seen first hand the myriad ways in which the regime causes its own people to suffer, he said to me that the international community is being “hypocritical” in failing to acknowledge that Syrians “don’t just die from chemical attacks, we die from a number of different types of weapons.”
He also argued that the U.S. strike demonstrated the “ceiling” of what the international community was prepared to do, and that it’s inadequacy will only serve to “reassure” Assad that he can “repeat his crimes and strike with a variety of weapons” without much retaliation. In other words, the U.S. did not send a message of strength, but of weakness.
The attack in Khan Sheikhoun is over, but it is only those who exchange these oft-empty words for whom the horror is truly finished. Before we run to champion Trump as the protector of Syrians, let us not forget the campaign viterol and the executive order seeking to ban Syrian refugees from entering the United States. Whilst there was indeed some merit in the U.S. airstrike against the regime airbase, it has of course failed to prevent any subsequent deaths by conventional means.
Until Assad is removed from power and stability is returned to Syria, the U.S. should not kid itself that it has truly “answered” the moral stain of the regime. It continues, and the grief that we have become so accustomed to seeing on our screens lasts longer than a two minute video. Millions of Syrians still trapped and left to live with the constant fear of death from above, and words over red lines will provide little comfort over the prospect of a safer Syria.