New Chemical Attacks in Syria Draw Tame U.S., International Response

On March 16, four bombs reportedly left seven dead and approximately 180 wounded in attacks on Sarmeen and Qminas.

On March 16, four bombs reportedly left seven dead and approximately 180 wounded in attacks on Sarmeen and Qminas. Pic Source 

by Ross Krasner

In mid-March, a tragically familiar scene took place in Sarmeen, a village in northwestern Syria, controlled by rebels. Residents heard the sound of a helicopter followed by the distinct and strong smell of chlorine. By the end of the attack, six members of one family including three children were dead and over 100 displayed symptoms consistent with a chemical attack.

“As you know, only the regime has helicopters,” Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations said of the Sarmeen incident and similar attacks. “So we believe the factual record is quite straightforward and devastating in terms of Syrian regime use.”

Ms. Power is one of the growing number of U.S officials to accuse the Assad regime of breaking the 2013 U.S.-Russia-sponsored plan to dismantle its arsenal of chemical weapons. The agreement came on the cusp of the U.S threatening a limited military campaign against Assad.

Joining Ms. Power in condemning these attacks is the American ambassador to the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Robert Mikulak, who cited a “steady stream” of accounts that the government has used chlorine weapons. The OPCW, which is tasked with overseeing the 2013 convention, conducted a fact-finding mission in 2014 concluding that the government used chlorine “systematically and repeatedly” in northern Syria.

Antony Blinken, the U.S. deputy secretary of State, has said that accounts by people in Syria over such chemical attacks are “strong and credible.”

However, it is clear that the U.S. response to these recent chlorine attacks are in stark contrast to the sarin gas attacks in 2013 that President Barack Obama described as crossing a “red line” that would illicit “enormous consequences.”

On May 14, Obama said on these attacks:

Chlorine itself, historically, has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.  And so we’re working with the international community to investigate that. And, in fact, if we have the kinds of confirmation that we need, we will, once again, work with the international community and the organization charged with monitoring compliance by the Syrian government, and we will reach out to patrons of Assad like Russia to put a stop to it.

In contrast to stronger toxins like Sarin, Chlorine is only deadly in concentrated doses and where medical treatment is not readily available, therefore it is used mostly as a terror tactic rather than for mass killings. It is not one of the chemicals Assad promised to destroy – though using it as a weapon is prohibited.

On March 6, the U.N. Security Council condemned the use of chlorine as a weapon but because of a threat of a Russian veto, the council did not assign blame.

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