Coughing, choking, foaming at the mouth, scores of panicked Syrians died in a recent chemical weapons strike. Except, unlike the Bashar al-Assad regime’s latest alleged sarin gas attack in Idlib last week, their deaths by chlorine gas did not lead to U.S. missile strikes against the Syrian regime. Rather, although the chlorine attacks—which some monitoring groups claim number at least 12 a year—have been met with widespread condemnation and sanctions, not much else has been done. Expressing the frustration felt by many human rights activists, Zaher Sahloul, a former president of the Syrian American Medical Society lamented, “There were testimonies in the [UN] Security Council, there were resolutions, there were attributions and then investigation teams, and then nothing happened. I think at this point, people gave up on Syria and talking about these issues.”
In 2013, I raised the question of why Syrian deaths by some banned chemical weapons elicited such a visceral response in the United States—in particular the desire to launch military strikes against the Assad regime—yet the myriad of other ways in which innumerable civilians have died there have not. (Chlorine has an ambiguous status under the treaty banning chemical weapons.) Unfortunately, the question bears repeating. Much as in 2013, the United States has used protecting the chemical weapons taboo as justification for possible military action.
The day before the missile strike, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, speaking at the Security Council, asked, “If we are not able to enforce resolutions preventing the use of chemical weapons, what does that say for our chances of ending the broader conflict in Syria?” In his statement on the strike, U.S. President Donald Trump said that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
Implicit in these declarations is the concern that inaction in the face of these violations will diminish and maybe even kill the chemical made this point in a statement on April 6. “It’s important to recognize that as Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response—no response from the international community—that he, in effect, is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which may then be adopted by others. So it’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms.”
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